The Dance Theatre of Harlem so becomes the Kennedy Center Opera House, and the house so becomes the company, that one could easily assume this mutual enhancement to be the product of a long and accustomed association.
Yet the fact is that the DTH, which began a week's run of eight performances at the Opera House last night, is only now appearing in the hall for the second time since the Center's founding. The earlier engagement took place in 1972 during the Center's first season. The DTH itself was still a fledgling, having been established a couple of years before that, with a view towards demonstrating the viability of black dancers in the "classical" realm.
If the company looked so naturally suited to its grandiose surroundings last night, it is because in the intervening years the troupe has evolved into one of the nation's most aristocratic dance ensembles. Having long since made its point about the indifference of balletic art to skin color, DTH has gone on to conquer as well the formidable challenge of artistic and organizational growth. Its very persence in the Opera House was a testimony to that growth; so was the brilliance of its performances; so, too, was the attendance of the country's new chief executive, as well as Mrs. Reagan, and Vice President and Mrs. Bush.
Perhaps the single most conspicuous sign of the company's coming into its own last night was the way it has taken completely personal possession of its material. There were three ballets on the program, each of them "borrowed," in the sense of having been created elsewhere. Yet each was given an unmistakable DTH stamp, in the particularized gusto, theatricality, refinement and flair of the performances.
All this was abundantly apparent in the evening's most ambitious and extravagant offering, the restaging of Michel Fokine's "Scheherazade" under the direction of Frederic Franklin. The company has walked a treacherous tightrope between tribute and travesty, and has won the gamble handily. These DTH dancers aren't trying to look either like fictional Arabians or like Diaghilev dancers trying to impersonate the same. They remain perpetually aware, as an audience is bound to, that they are Americans of the 1980s, who can take seriously this pretend-Oriental yarn of lecherous slaves, lubricious concubines and wrathful pashas only to a point, and no further.
But they are showing too that their contemporary sophistication doesn't preclude their relishing a good, juicy technicolor fable, especially when it's so lavishly seasoned by the imagination of masters like choreographer Fokine, composer Rimsky-Korsakov, and set designer Leon Bakst (whose decor is here reproduced by Geoffrey Guy).
Frankin's staging has the hallmarks of authenticity, but what one takes away from the DTH performance is neither a feeling for "period" nor an atmospher of synthetic decadence, but rather the sheer joy of make-believe and a wonderfully exuberant sensuality. Virginia Johnson is so deliciously alluring as Zobeide, the harem favorite, that it's hard to imagine even Ida Rubinstein, whose languorous splendor in the original production became legend, could have been more of a dazzle. Johnson's slinking walk -- with haughtily lifted chin, torso leaning suggestively back into the sacrum, arms floating away from the body, hips rolling alternately forward -- is a masterpiece of gestural insinuation. As the Golden Slave, Eddie Shellman makes no try for Nijinsky's repressed smoldering, but gives us instead his own bristling carnality and aerial brio. Frederic Franklin's opening night guest apearance as the waddling Chief Eunuch was a reminder of his long familiar expertise with "character" roles.
The DTH production has a further asset -- as preposterous as "Scheherazade" may seem to us today in most respects, the fluidity of the stage picture, with its seething whorls of flesh, and the clear, swift, pointed unfolding of the action, leaves us in no doubt of Fokine's genuine and original command of theatrical syntax. We can no longer be "taken in" by it, but we can still admire and enjoy it thoroughly.
In no less emphatic terms, DTH appropriated both Billy Wilson's jazzy cocktail party charade, "Mirage," and that Balanchine chestnut, "Serenade," for its very own. In the case of "Serenade," the overly decorative and romanticized results may be open to argument, but the product is assuredly no mere Balanchine look-alike -- it's become a DTH statement, and an intriguing one at that.