What it comes down to, ultimately, is how the bodies move. One could wish for better choreography, better music, a taste of those stunning neoclassical origins. But at the opening of the Dance Theatre of Harlem's week-long sojourn at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, one could scarcely wish for better dancing.
At a time when so many ballet companies strive for a we-can-do-anything look, DTH achieves it with easy nonchalance. There wasn't much call for pure classicism on the program--comprising the local premiere of Dwight Rhoden's "Twist," Billy Wilson's "Ginastera" and DTH's signature "Firebird"--but there was ample opportunity for the dancers to show off their dramatic zest, technical firepower and, especially, their unalloyed joy in performing. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone, from the principals to the novices in the back row, who lacked a magnetic sense of presence.
The tremendous appeal of the dancers, in fact, went a long way in smoothing over the unevenness of the program. Rhoden's contribution was a meditation in hyperdrive on the word "twist" and its many meanings. With its harsh electronic score and frank athleticism, it brought to mind William Forsythe's aggressively gymnastic "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." To Rhoden's credit, though, his work bears some warmth--the dancers dance like humans and not automatons--and even a flash or two of humor.
The soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Scott (like Rhoden, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) had its moments--it went from low thrumming to odd sounds of hedge clippers and a dive-bombing swarm of bees, to a nightclub beat. The set, in fact, evoked a nihilistic nightclub, with cold spotlighting and bold bars of color in the background. The dancers wore varying amounts of crayon-colored spandex.
As a former Ailey dancer and co-director of a troupe called Complexions, Rhoden has a strictly modern-dance pedigree. But he seems fascinated by the ballet dancer's abilities, and at times makes interesting use of squarely classical steps sharply yanked off-kilter. But while his inventiveness is laudable, it eventually became a liability. Too much effort was put into novelty for novelty's sake--strange ways to hoist one's partner across one's shoulders, or to sweep up the floor with her. Most impressive was that, however awkward the moves, the dancers bore them all like a second skin.
Wilson's "Ginastera," which opened the program, could have used some of Rhoden's bite. Wilson mistakes posturing, gesture and the flick of a fan for importance. Many moods were expressed in the five selections by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, but the choreography just skated the surface. When the music was fiery, the men bounded about in a not-quite-tango, not-quite-flamenco show of machismo. When it was melancholic, a woman strolled around daydreaming.
The surprise highlight of the evening was "Firebird," a company war horse for nearly two decades. One can generally count on its being brightly danced, but last night it shimmered with a purposefulness I haven't seen in some time.
It is an overtly beautiful work, choreographed by John Taras, set to Stravinsky's tuneful "Firebird Suite" and dressed in Geoffrey Holder's vibrant, Caribbean-inspired jewel tones. The real charge, however, was in Kellye A. Saunders's edgy take on the title role. It wasn't only her steely strength, her birdlike physique or her legs that blurred like hummingbird wings. When she strode on-stage to save Donald Williams, the hunter who spared her, from the Creatures of Evil, her large eyes burned with danger.
This program will be repeated, with cast changes, tonight and tomorrow night. The company's second program will be performed Friday through Sunday.
CAPTION: Dance Theatre of Harlem rehearses for last night's Washington premiere of Dwight Rhoden's overly inventive "Twist."
CAPTION: A rehearsal for the Dance Theatre of Harlem's premiere of "Twist" last night.