In "Bach Passacaglia" -- the opening ballet in last night's performance by the Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Kennedy Center Opera House, commencing a two-week run -- the stage teemed with a seemingly impossible number of performers.
Adult professionals from DTH were joined by some 40 students of the recently instituted DTH-Kennedy Center residency program, and in the work's second half, students from the DTH school in New York and others from Washington's Jones-Haywood School of Dance were additional participants.
For all the unwieldy crowding, the ballet had a spirited, rationally ordered majesty answering to the imposing structures of the Bach score. This was the result of two complementary factors -- the resplendent ceremonial choreography by DTH co-founder and Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell and DTH faculty member Rachel Sekyi, and the trans-generational rapport and mettle of the dancers. In form the piece falls into a tradition of the ballet classroom and its exercises, serving as a springboard for showcasing large contingents of dancers. But in its development, both in the first part, set to the C Minor Passacaglia, and the second, to the D Minor Organ Fugue, it displays a richly cumulative visual polyphony directly mirroring the musical architecture.
The piece was originally created, in slightly less elaborate form, for the '93 Kennedy Center Honors, when Mitchell took his place among the honorees. In its Kennedy Center staging, it seemed even more thoroughly symbolic of everything DTH and Mitchell have stood for: first of all, the sense of educational mission that prompted Mitchell and Karel Shook to found the company in 1969; secondly, a commitment to serving the communities from which DTH draws its students and audiences; and thirdly, the dedication to the ideals of classicism, but a classicism broad enough to encompass such modern and quintessentially American genres as jazz dance and tap dance, as well as a variety of forms spawned by the African diaspora worldwide.
DTH launched its current Kennedy Center engagement with the "Bach Passacaglia" in celebration of its 25th anniversary season. The evening was a gala DTH benefit, and it started off with a warm and graciously eloquent onstage tribute to the troupe by Tipper Gore, followed by a 10-minute film homage to Mitchell and DTH. A quickie history of the company, excerpts from a range of performances, and scenes of backstage and studio life were the main substance. The most memorable moments were those showing Mitchell, with characteristic humor and zest, instructing and demonstrating for hordes of youngsters, and then, at the film's end, describing his "ultimate dream" as an international school for kids of every culture, that would tour under the rubric "Noah's Art." How can anyone resist the man?
The Bach was followed by a revival of Valerie Bettis's "A Streetcar Named Desire," created in 1952 and first staged by DTH in 1982. It exemplifies a genre long out of vogue, a one-act dramatic ballet inspired by a popular novel or play, in this case the celebrated Tennessee Williams script. It still makes a fine outlet for the DTH dramatic flair, as typified here by Virginia Johnson's sensitively nuanced Blanche DuBois and Lowell Smith's aptly brutish Stanley Kowalski. Bettis's choreography takes its cues from the bristling jazz score Alex North composed for the classic 1951 Elia Kazan film version (with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh), adapted for the ballet by Rayburn Wright. Judith Rotardier and Keith Saunders were especially sympathetic in the roles of Stella and Mitch. Further enhancements are the uncredited set, consisting of movable, fraying, shuttered doorways a la New Orleans decadence, and Saul Bolasni's costumes, so clearly keyed to the characters who wear them.
The program (the first of five for the DTH run) concluded with "Concerto in F," Billy Wilson's urbane fusion of ballet and jazz dance to the Gershwin score. Tai Jimenez, who has swiftly become one of the company's most ravishingly elegant ballerinas, led the first movement, robustly supported by Ronald Perry. In the second movement Kellye Gordon was deliciously insouciant as the tease who turns Fabian Barnes and Luis Dominguez into feverish rivals, and then frustrates them both.