There was funk, there was soul, there was righteous rage and frolicsome fauna. But there was little that you'd call ballet on last night's Dance Theatre of Harlem program at the Kennedy Center Opera House. In fact, if you're not at all keen on classical dance, this was the program for you.
Given its similarly contemporary-styled offerings earlier in the week, it appears that DTH is following the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on its popular, eclectic route, except that DTH's ballet dancers can do it in toe shoes. It seems a shame, however, to see those sleek, classically trained bodies whipped around in works geared to easy appeal.
Any one of the three pieces--resident choreographer Robert Garland's "Return," Michael Smuin's "A Song for Dead Warriors" and, for the third consecutive year, "South African Suite"--would have been an interesting counterpoint to others of more complexity. But grouped together, they undersold the company's abilities.
"Return" is set to soul tunes by James Brown and Aretha Franklin--music made for shaking your booty. And there's plenty of that, the dancers snaking their spines and spiraling their hips with abandon. What doesn't fit is Garland's occasional use of classroom ballet steps and arm positions. At first, their tight uprightness forms an interesting contrast with the go-go looseness. After that statement is made, however, Garland doesn't have anything else to say, and it begins to look like a muddle. Still, the dancers keep the groove going, and it's a kick to see company veteran Donald Williams cut loose for Brown's "Super Bad."
We go from that to "Warriors," a narrative tale that details the sufferings of contemporary Native Americans. It's a visually impressive and complicated work, with many theatrical effects, including images of destitution and ruin projected on a scrim and a lifelike herd of hairy buffalo emerging from the mist. There's also a contingent of Native American dancers from such tribes as Mohawk, Cherokee and Iroquois, who make an appearance in a whirlwind dream sequence.
But the piece doesn't elicit a complicated response--we can all agree the Indians have been mistreated at the hands of white people (here represented by a savagely brutal police officer in whiteface). The characters are drawn as stereotypes--the police and other non-Indians are heinous, while the Indians are noble. They're too crudely drawn for us to feel much of anything.
The performances, however, are top-notch, especially Ramon Thielen as the young man whose life we follow, Kellye A. Saunders as his romantic interest, and Kip Sturm, Mark Burns, Kevin Thomas, Eric Underwood and Williams as the proud, explosive Ancestral Chiefs.
As it has in the past, "South African Suite"--a joint effort by Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell, Augustus Van Heerden and Laveen Naidu--goes down easy. The lilting music, played onstage by the Soweto String Quartet, is like a light rain. The tall, ribbonlike Caroline Rocher was delightful in the opening and closing sequences, evoking as other dancers did the wildlife and natural beauty of Africa.
This program repeats this afternoon, tonight and Sunday afternoon.
CAPTION: A scene from "South African Suite."