The ways in which ballet evolves without invalidating its classical core have not been exhausted. "Signs and Wonders," Alonzo King's new work, which Dance Theatre of Harlem showed on the weekend for its second Kennedy Center program, confronts academic dance. Technique is taken in a direction that has also attracted other choreographers, but along a route that is King's own.
Basic to this piece is the notion that dancers are onstage in order to move. They move a lot -- initially and ultimately as individuals. Cautiously aware of one another, they remain aloof when they cross paths or aggregate. A sense of isolation persists even when they touch, making them seem spiritual, magical beings.
The music King uses for the work's seven forays is from Africa, where acerbic melodies and percussive rhythms predominate. The movement, reminiscent of African traditions, is aligned and articulated with balletic balance and stretch. Dancers stalk with dignity and a hush. Bodies wind and knot elegantly. Two remarkable duets conjure haunting auras as they explore the active and passive in partnering.
King's "Wonders" elicited passion and control from its large cast of soloists, making it the best-performed piece on the program. The company, led by several of the same dancers -- Virginia Johnson, Donald Williams, Karen Brown, Patrick Johnson, Kellye Gordon, Tassia Hooks, Keith Saunders, Cedric Rouse and Ryan Taylor -- enjoyed itself in another new piece, Robert Garland's "The Joplin Dances," to conductor David LaMarche's pungent orchestration of rags by Scott Joplin and colleagues. Garland's comfortable step combinations added sultry New Orleans languor to a form that tried to encompass the class differences in the fun of Massine's demicaractere "Gaite Parisienne" and Balanchine's neoclassical "Who Cares?"
Unsatisfactory in different ways were two revivals -- John Taras's "Designs With Strings" from the 1940s and John Butler's "Othello" from the 1970s. The wistful Taras chamber work needed a refined strength it didn't receive. No cast would find it easy to pump life into Butler's forced use of Graham contractions and hollow echoes of Soviet dramatics.