The sea, with its ebbs and tides, colors, storms and calms, has been theme and substance of a vast amount of work in all the arts. Domy Reiter-Soffer's "La Mer," which the Dance Theatre of Harlem introduced to Washington last night at the beginning of the second and final week of its season at the Kennedy Center, isn't choreography of a caliber to measure against Claude Debussy's music of that name, which it uses.
Debussy's symphonism is spacious, suggesting the sea's depths, and is simultaneously as delicate as fine spray. The dance material has certainly been made to flow. Reiter-Soffer chose a meld of academic ballet with modern plastique movement as his basic stock, and there's an uncommon amount of coming and going by the dancers and a constant shaping and dissolving of poses and groupings. Little of this activity, however, has memorable texture or weight.
There are moments, though. Stephanie Dabney and Donald Williams meet like two cresting waves. In one passage of the ensuing duet, as Dabney is carried backward, her legs cut the air sharply. Ecstasy, pain, inevitability are conveyed by this image. The next instant, feeling disappears and ordinary dancing remains. Lorraine Graves, dressed not in sea colors like the rest of the cast, but in an orange unitard, must be the reflection of the sun on the waters. Apart from costume, though, her role isn't distinctive enough to represent an alien element.
"La Mer" is reminiscent, but not enough so, of the old symphonic ballets. It does serve Dabney, Williams and another solo figure, Joseph Cipolla, in displaying line and pliancy. Best of all, it's an excuse to listen to Debussy, well conducted by Boyd Staplin.
Altogether, last night's was an old-fashioned bill. Valerie Bettis's "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a story ballet from the '50s that isn't exactly an exemplary piece of narrative dance. But it does have two juicy roles. Blanche, in Virginia Johnson's rendering, is more interesting teetering at the edge of respectability than in finally letting go and going mad. Stanley Kowalski, as Lowell Smith embodies him, is as thorough a brute as one could wish. Harlem's version of the work is more streamlined in recounting the incidents of Tennessee Williams' play than was the production that was once in the repertory of this city's vanished National Ballet.
The company sprinted through George Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes," with buoyant Judy Tyrus in the forefront of all the battalions.