In performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House Wednesday and Thursday, the members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem proved themselves stylistic chameleons, performing ballets ranging from neoclassic to acrobatic to dramatic.
Wednesday's performance was the occasion for welcoming back "Manifestations," which was choreographed by DTH Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell in 1976, but had not been seen in Washington for many years -- and never at the Kennedy Center.
A meditation on prelapsarian bliss and the nature of temptation, "Manifestations" is Mitchell at his choreographic best. Its drama is clear and striking, yet evoked with great economy; its movement material is eclectic, and its theatrical effects are dazzling.
With only three dancers -- Lowell Smith as Adam, Judy Tyrus as Eve and Carld Jonassaint as the Snake -- this chamber ballet conveys the gulf between bliss and evil and what it means to the innocent to bridge that gulf.
While the acrobatic movements create the archetypal characters, Mitchell also pays homage to his mentor, George Balanchine, in the pas de deux, with specific reference to the central duet of "Agon" (Mitchell created the male role in "Agon" when he was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet in 1957).
At Thursday's performance, "Saffron Knot," a ballet with a past steeped in international politics, received its Washington premiere. The ballet was originally choreographed by an American, the late Harry Asmus, for Istvan Rabovsky and his wife Nora Kovach, Hungarian dancers who defected in 1953.
Rabovsky, who now teaches at DTH's school, has set his own staging of the ballet -- "after" Asmus, according to a program note -- on DTH, which first performed it in its last season.
The 30-year-old ballet fashions its pas de deux out of passionate embraces -- seeming almost graphic within the chaste ballet tradition -- in combination with the Soviet bravura style of spectacular lifts in which the woman is carried overhead, sometimes with just one hand, by her partner.
Set to a piano reduction of Wagner's Prelude and "Liebestod" from "Tristan and Isolde," which was performed from the stage by David LaMarche, the ballet began with Eddie J. Shellman performing a series of turns before a crouched figure swathed in a cloak. Tyrus emerged from this cocoon to stretch her limbs until Shellman returned to kiss her foot.
The couple caress until their ecstasy carries them to larger, aerial movements suggesting uncontainable rapture. Shellman flourishes Tyrus' supine body, his arms stretched overhead, carrying her with the exultation of a victor and eliciting gasps and cheers from the audience.
Another Washington premiere was John Butler's "Othello," set to Dvorak's "Othello" Overture, which was originally created for Carla Fracci in 1978. The ballet entered DTH's repertoire in 1982, and the role of Desdemona has been performed exclusively since by ballerina Virginia Johnson.
Her affecting performance was matched by Donald Williams' powerful and anguished Othello and by Tyrone Brooks' complex and tormented Iago.
The ballet hinges on touch -- on loving touch, on touch suggesting revulsion, on the comfort of self-touch. Like "Saffron Knot," Butler's ballet is also a series of pas de deux featuring acrobatic lifts, but in "Othello," the duets alternate between male-female and male-male, and between love and venom.
Butler suggests that it is ambivalence between Othello and Iago which drives the tragedy. The men grapple and embrace, and it is not always clear where one stops and the other begins.
Any ballet on this subject invariably draws comparison with Jose' Limon's acclaimed "Moor's Pavane." Unlike the "Pavane," which is reined in by the structure of court dance, Butler's work is driven by violent dynamics that spill out with ever-increasing force.
Another highlight of Thursday's program was Charmaine Hunter's debut in the title role of John Taras' "Firebird." Hunter plunged boldly in her movements, her arabesques forming lush arcs.
The audience responded excitedly to her fiery turns and to pointe work so quick that her feet suggested the blur of a pinwheel.
DTH's run continues through this weekend.