Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded 30 years ago to prove that blacks belong in classical ballet. Its driving force was – and remains – Arthur Mitchell, who cut short a stellar career with the New York City Ballet under Balanchine to bring his vision into being. The survival of DTH is a miracle, given the old prejudices that still prevail; its triumphs in the course of its roller-coaster history, cause for rejoicing. At the moment, though, it’s hard to make a case for the group as the strong classical company it aspires to be.
The repertoire alone for its recent two-week run at the City Center revealed this uncomfortable truth. Apart from three Balanchine ballets, DTH presented nothing from the classical-dance canon – the treasure house that advances performers’ capabilities as it deepens and refines an audience’s appreciation of the art. Instead, the season was centered on works that draw – with a very free hand – on the traditions of the African diaspora (Geoffrey Holder’s 1982 Banda remains the most gratifying in this mode) and the tough-chic crossover stuff that’s being done everywhere (here, notably, created by black choreographers). The company’s brand-new offerings, Dwight Rhoden’s Twist and Robert Garland’s Return, fall into the latter category, where the simpler and showier elements of ballet are co-opted for a movement mix focused on the sensational. On this turf, the subject matter – suggested only vaguely, according to contemporary fashion – is the impossibility of joy, and even of purpose, in our troubled times. Every time this proposition is reiterated, it becomes less convincing.
The company’s current dancers are unique (no humanoid clones here) and personable, as DTH dancers have invariably been. But, as has chronically been the case, they are technically underequipped. Their turnout is incomplete and insecure; their footwork either stiff or flaccid; their strength insufficient; their precision a sometime thing. The number of dancers is another concern: The ranks seem terribly thin. Alumni returned to the fold only for the anniversary season carried lots of the major roles, while many of the dancers making up the ensemble are noticeably pre-professional.
At all levels, individual dancers proved disarming: the veteran Donald Williams, who is a true creature of the stage; Andrea Long, who grasps the loneliness and sorrow behind the fierce façade of the Firebird; James Washington, who epitomizes the physical and temperamental grace of DTH at its best; and a young, plump woman in the ranks with as yet limited technical prowess who nevertheless emanates irresistible charm. Such delights are nowhere near enough to constitute an argument that DTH is thriving as one would hope, but they cheer you up some.