IN THE REPERTORY the Dance Theatre of Harlem is bringing to the Kennedy Center Opera House, for a week of performances beginning Tuesday evening, one can the signs of vitality and growth that have marked the troup's progress in recent years.
The programs boast four Washington premieres, among them a restoration of the rarely seen "Les Biches," one of the neglected treasures of the Diaghilev era, as well as David Lichine's "Graduation Ball," George Balanchine's "Square Dance," and the "Pas de Dix" from "Raymonda." In addition, the company will dance its own version of Stravinsky's "The Firebird," choreographed for DTH last year by John Taras, as well as Geoffrey Holder's flamboyantly atmospheric voodoo ballet, "Banda," an audience favorite during last year's DTH engagement here. It's unlikely one could name another classical ballet company anywhere in See HARLEM, K7, Col. 1 HARLEM, From K1 the world with a more diversified range of styles and modes.
Reaching the status DTH now enjoys as one of the pace-setting ballet companies of the globe was no mean trick, and just staying there isn't exactly easy either. Years of struggle and crisis preceded the present flowering. The company was established by co-founders Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969, when Mitchell--long a leading dancer with the New York City Ballet--decided that other young black Americans deserved the same opportunity he'd had to enjoy the discipline and exaltation of classical ballet. In those days that took some doing, since blacks were hard put to acquire even rudimentary training, much less professional employment, in a field so thoroughly dominated by white artists and administrators. So Shook and Mitchell established both a school and a company, and set out to show that given the proper encouragement and rearing, blacks could meet the highest standards required of ballet dancers across the international spectrum--they wanted to prove, in other words, that Mitchell himself wasn't a freak of nature, but an example of what could happen with the removal of unnatural, man-made antagonisms and barriers.
Ten years of DTH successes and burgeoning repertoire proved the point beyond rational dispute. The company now saw a new mission for the future--to maintain its ground and expand its horizons, not to prove anything, but simply to persevere as one of the nation's and the world's most progressive strongholds of classical ballet. Only a few seasons ago, that future seemed deeply clouded--company finances were in disarray, many dancers left, performances were canceled and educational and outreach programs had to be severely cut back. But Mitchell and Shook had become experts also in the arts of survival, and the troupe bounced back, with a newly structured board of directors, and a tightened focus on professional aims. A sizable monetary transfusion last year from the National Endowment for the Arts--an $800,000 grant to be matched on a three-to-one basis by mid-1985--helped put an ever-elusive "safety net" in place for DTH, and its performances in recent years have confirmed its revitalization on the artistic side.
During the coming DTH engagement at Kennedy Center, a prime center of attention is sure to be the company's production of "Les Biches," a historical landmark that's had scant exposure in this country. "Les Biches" was created in 1924 for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, whose greatness as a choreographer is only now emerging from behind the shadow of her brother's legend as a virtuoso. Today, scholars and critics of ballet are coming to acknowledge in the work of both brother and sister the seeds of many innovations not just in the realm of ballet, but in modern dance as well.
Nijinsky came first, and in 1912 the stylized eroticism of his "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," in a completely new dance language, shocked the sensibilities of his contemporaries. Then followed an even greater shocker in 1913, the "Le Sacre du Printemps" to Stravinsky's epoch-making score, and the notorious rioting it spurred. In the same year, Nijinsky also choreographed "Jeux" to the music of Debussy, a subtler but scarcely less radical departure, a ballet depicting a trio of tennis players--the first contemporary subject in the Diaghilev repertory--in which one man vacillates in his attraction to two women.
Nijinska, though she developed a powerfully individual choreographic idiom of her own, was profoundly influenced by her brother's ideas. Her masterpiece, "Les Noces" (seen last year in Washington in a reconstruction by the Oakland Ballet), was indebted to "Sacre," both in its reliance on ancient Russian ritual and its association with Stravinsky's music. "Les Biches," choreographed a year later, is a sort of counterpart to "Jeux." The musical score, for orchestra and small chorus, is by Poulenc, not Debussy, but once again the atmosphere is one of sexual ambivalence--this time the sport isn't tennis, but the game of love itself. The title "Les Biches" doesn't translate easily--literally, it means "The Does," but the French expression is also a colloquial description of nubile young women: "The Little Darlings" is how one writer has rendered it. The scene of the ballet is a fashionable private soiree in the south of France in the '20s, and the action--there's no "plot" as such--is a sequence of flirtations and amorous dalliances. The air of sexual liberation and casual liaisons has its distinctly contemporary echoes, it's easy enough to see.
Poulenc's score consists of eight dances with titles like "Rondeau," "Jeu," "Rag Mazurka," "Chanson Dansee," and so forth, and Nijinska has used each to introduce one by one her gallery of characters--the imposing Hostess (performed in the original by Nijinska herself), who toys with a rope of pearls and a lengthy cigarette holder; la Garconne, a beautiful but androgynous-looking woman dressed in tights and a short velvet jacket; a trio of macho-type males in bathing trunks, flexing their biceps; a flock of flirts in pink who carry on outrageously around a sofa; and two diffident females who exhibit lesbian impulses.
This remarkable ballet about manners, morals and erotic strategy has been staged for DTH by the choreographer's daughter, Irina Nijinska, with the help of dance notator Juliette Kando--the same pair who revived both "Les Noces" and "Les Biches" for the Oakland Ballet in recent seasons. It's but one element in the uncommonly varied repertory DTH will be showing us this week, but it promises to be quite a spicy highlight for all its age.