In some conspicuous aspects, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is proving itself close in spirit to the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, the artistic enterprise that set ballet on its 20th-century course, This is true in its attention to dramatic and folk materials (as well as abstract ballets), and in its emphasis upon the ballet as a total work of art that regards scenery and costumes as important components of the work.
The company's founder, Arthur Mitchell, also clearly includes the neoclassical Balanchine lineage -- itself begun with Diaghilev -- in his repertory. But last night's Kennedy Center Opera House program, the last to be introduced in this two-week run, emphasized a variety that Diaghilev took 20 years to evolve. And while Diaghilev worked with a "cabinet" of artistic advisers, Mitchell has found in Geoffrey Holder a one-man collaborative team. Holder's talents were showcased in two of the ballets on this program: He choreographed, composed and costumed "Dougla" and designed "Firebird's" sets and costumes.
As it did for "Giselle," the company has redefined a classical ballet by changing the setting of "Firebird." While moving the action from Russia to a tropical forest, this production, choreographed by John Taras, also shifts the weight of its emotion and action to the title character.
And in Stephanie Dabney the company has a Firebird equal to this charge. Her Firebird is boldly vibrant, exotically regal in the sharpness of her attack, the flash of her bourre'es, the drama of her deeply arched back.
Although they are not the center of this production, splendid performances by Donald Williams as the Prince and Lorraine Graves, typecast as the Princess of Unreal Beauty, provide ballast enough to make their presences memorably felt.
In Holder's "Dougla," the use of ethnic material also brought the Diaghilev link to mind. In its strong architectural shape and suggestion of a mating ritual, the ballet specifically summons allusions to "Les Noces," which Nijinska choreographed for Diaghilev's company in 1923. But here the Russian formality of the ritual has been exchanged for African sensuality in its propulsive torsos and hips. With their bright billowy cloth and accessories, the stunning costumes reflect this heat.
This performance of "Dougla" set the house on fire. Particularly noteworthy were Judith Rotardier as the Woman in Green for her extraordinary dynamic contrasts and the entire male corps for its dynamic energy.
The program also included "Voluntaries," Glen Tetley's sensationalist ballet set to the Poulenc Concerto for Organ and Orchestra. Tetley's gymnastic boldness provided a forum for this ensemble to display its ardor, virtuosity and beauty.
This corker of a program will be repeated tonight and, with cast changes, tomorrow at 2.