Being a ballerina of color in New York City has never been easy. In 2012, young minority women looking to make a career in this still very white art form face a daunting choice: Do they look to follow Misty Copeland, the lone African American dancer of rank at Manhattan’s two major companies? Or do they hold out hope that District native Virginia Johnson successfully revives Dance Theatre of Harlem, the historically black company slated to debut next year?
Several ballerinas facing this decision performed at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday with Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, the junior company affiliated with the school Johnson heads. Picking repertory appears to be a challenge. The ensemble performed a mix of works formerly performed by the senior company — which went on hiatus in 2004 — plus pieces Johnson has commissioned or acquired.
(Rachel Neville) - Alexandra Jacob Wilson and Samuel Wilson perform Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space.”
“New Bach,” Robert Garland’s 2001 whimsical suite, felt like knock-off Paul Taylor. The male dancers, in particular, had difficulty feeling the baroque music. From their puffed-out chests on up, they appeared to be out clubbing.
Far better was “In the Mirror of Her Mind,” a requiem of sorts for fearless technician Ashley Murphy to dance with three of the company’s men. Each guy whose arms she landed in sent her spinning toward the catwalks, yet her lithe limbs always maintained position.
Contemporary adagios clearly came naturally to Murphy, yet moments later, she was back onstage dancing Balanchine. The other two dancers, regrettably, had no business performing the dainty “Glinka Pas de Trios.” After intermission came the only number that perfectly suited these dancers: Donald Byrd’s new ballet, “Contested Space.”
What’s unusual here is Byrd’s pointe work; the ladies wield their toe shoes like knives on the ends of their legs. When Danielle Thomas held an arabesque for what felt like an eternity and slowly rotated, she was showing her strength, not showing off. The garage-band techno music, black costumes and industrial sets felt slightly dated, but the grit of ’80s “Fame” isn’t a bad aesthetic.
No one knows if Dance Theatre of Harlem will live forever, but it’s still teaching dancers how to fly.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.