"St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet," which Dance Theatre of Harlem performed at the Kennedy Center last night, is woefully true to its name. This brassy, ostentatiously seductive work -- with a million-dollar price tag -- is part of the reason Dance Theatre is more than $2 million in debt and has had to run for months on volunteer labor.
Knowing the back story, it's a bit hard to enjoy the piece, though it delivers a hard sell at every turn. To be fair, it is an undeniably entertaining work, impressive in its great stew of color, sound and showy steps. It takes place inside a throbbing red fireball of a nightclub, where the dancers punctuate every hit of the high-hat with hip thrusts that would bowl over a defensive line. There is probably no ballet worth mortgaging one's future for, but this one isn't wholly undeserving.
It's just not terribly satisfying, artistically. Perhaps the idea was jinxed from the start. The ballet is based on the 1946 Broadway musical "St. Louis Woman" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, which flopped, despite its popular tunes -- "Come Rain or Come Shine," "I Had Myself a True Love." Dance Theatre of Harlem had hoped to build the ballet into a commercial success, a money-making work to take on tour and appeal to a broader audience than the company attracts with its usual fare.
The costumes -- each one an attention-getting exclamation point in crayon colors -- are by high-profile Broadway designer Willa Kim. Michael Smuin, whose "A Song for Dead Warriors" is one of the company's standards, choreographed the ballet, and it is full of Smuinisms: the whirl-a-girl love duets, the legs mashed to noses, the swish and sweep and swish some more.
There is a bit of a story, about a gangster and a girl, and another girl and a jockey, but of course they're not paired up the way they want to be. It's not enough to carry the piece; apparently, the decision was made to scrimp on the story but splurge on the rest.
Despite the slim characterizations, the performances were top-notch. As Della Green, the woman who starts the ruckus, Caroline Rocher vamped with purpose. She was all slithering hips and cat-eyes, endless legs and other wardrobe-enhanced assets. As Biglow Brown, whose heart Della breaks, Donald Williams managed to whip some forcefulness of emotion into his pirouettes, but he wasn't given much else to do. Ikolo Griffin, the jockey Della falls for, cut like a razor through the air. As Lila, the woman scorned, Tai Jimenez had the thankless job of ending most of her dance numbers like so many Smuin women, either on her knees or skittering across the floor like discarded laundry. There was a moment of treacly female solidarity and a hopelessly hokey climax -- which felt a lot like an ending, and yet the ballet chugged on. It was built to wow and it did, but to give it greater impact would take a bit more work and likely more money, and that probably isn't in the cards for this gamble.
The music is big, full of dance stomps, weepy blues, arty romantic moments and even a cakewalk, but it proved too complex for the Opera House orchestra to polish on the tight deadline of a brief engagement like this one.
Some ballets lay on the jam but at their core are as bland as toast. Others rely on little or no adornment but deliver a feast of musicality, geometry and scintillating simplicity. The latter is exhibited by "The Four Temperaments," one of George Balanchine's most beloved masterpieces, and this opened the Dance Theatre program. Like the bold, sleek Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe, or a Rothko canvas, this plotless work is everlastingly fresh and modern-looking. Its impact is effortless, borne of great music -- Paul Hindemith's majestic "Theme and Variations" -- brilliantly stylized, fractured and reorganized steps, and splendidly spare costuming. It can always be counted on to deliver a jolt of excitement, as last night's cast did, particularly Kevin Thomas as Melancholic, Akua Parker and Kip Sturm in the Sanguinic duet, Fidel Garcia as Phlegmatic and Andrea Long as Choleric.
The program repeats this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow afternoon, with cast changes.