Judging from Dance Theatre of Harlem's opening program last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the company's severe financial troubles have not taken their toll on the artistic side. In fact, the dancers performed with more polish and authority -- and in more challenging repertoire -- than in many seasons past.
There was a distinct impression throughout the evening that great care had been taken with all three works on the program. This makes sense: The program was a tribute to George Balanchine, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated by dance companies worldwide. Few troupes, however, possess the deep emotional tie that binds Dance Theatre of Harlem to the great ballet innovator. Dance Theatre Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell owes his career to Balanchine, who allowed him to flourish both as a dancer in the New York City Ballet and then, later, as a leader of his own dancers. Mitchell has always given lavish credit to his mentor for pushing him to build a company, and for giving him great ballets to do it with.
Dance Theatre became known for its clarity in performing the Balanchine repertoire, but in recent seasons we have seen little of it here. Last night's Balanchine trio -- "Apollo," "The Prodigal Son" and "Agon" -- is a welcome reprieve from past programs that had grown stale with overexposure.
Each of the ballets contained a significant central duet, and it was in these intense, dramatically heightened conversations between a man and a woman that the works glowed. The "Agon" pas de deux, especially, drew murmurs of awe from an otherwise uncharacteristically subdued audience. Alicia Graf, back after a long absence from the company, is all sinewy length -- neck, arms, spine, legs -- which made her sculptural poses all the more dramatic. But it was her sense of ease that was most astounding. She looked utterly relaxed, whether casually snapping a leg ear-high or snaking it around Donald Williams's back. This was a buttery-smooth performance, not a taut one, yet musical, alluring and utterly sensual. Graf and Williams created a fascinating tension between his excellent rapt attentiveness and her insouciance.
Tension of a different sort fueled "The Prodigal Son." Duncan Cooper performed the title role with considerable texture rather than relying simply on brash coltishness. Caroline Rocher was an ultra-glamorous Siren (coached by Suzanne Farrell, one of the great Sirens of Balanchine's day) with a streak of barely disguised cruelty, her sophistication forming a perfect contrast to Cooper's earnestness. As the mountain of a Father, James Washington dominated his scenes, making it clear he was both the cause of his son's rebellion and a magnet drawing him back into his sheltering arms.
"Apollo," which opened the program, didn't gel until midway through when the young god of the title (Rasta Thomas) danced with his chosen muse (Tai Jimenez as Terpsichore) and seemed to draw strength from her. Thomas, with his tousled dark hair and broad, ropy shoulders, is an attractive Apollo, but when alone onstage he lacked a commanding presence. A principal dancer who is relatively new to the company, he seemed still to be finding his way in this role. He was dancing in a pressure cooker, with more combustible energy than assurance and dramatic dimension.
Still, Apollo and his Muses -- Andrea Long, Kellye A. Saunders and Jimenez -- presented an appealing picture of youth and promise. These are roles to grow into and one hopes the company will be allowed to persist long enough for them to mature.
The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow with cast changes.