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Dance Theatre of Harlem: Strong and refreshing, but not transcendent, ballet

Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers in “Gloria.” (Matthew Murphy)

Just as founder Arthur Mitchell intended, Dance Theatre of Harlem has long been a vehicle for showcasing the talents of black ballet dancers and choreographers, a contingent that is sorely underrepresented in the art form. So when the troupe was shuttered from 2004 to 2012 amid financial woes, it left a void in the American ballet landscape.

The troupe’s performance Thursday at the Harman Center for the Arts was solid, not transcendent. But it was refreshing to see it at work again and to be reminded how much more powerful and essential the field of ballet becomes when its voices are more diverse and universal.

“Past-carry-forward,” for example, examined the Great Migration, when millions of black Americans left the South in the early 20th century to live in the Northeast and Midwest.

It was evident that choreographers Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis had taken painstaking care to deliver a realistic portrayal of the era and its people, and those efforts largely paid off. A scene at a party in Harlem Renaissance-era New York bristles with a feeling of vitality and opportunity, with devil-may-care partnering and fast footwork. But it is ominously set against a blood-red backdrop, a subtle way of foreshadowing the next scene, in which male dancers portray servicemen in a segregated military.

Trains can be heard frequently in the score: In early sections, it’s the whistle of a passenger train; later, it’s the hum of the subway. A highly effective motif, it perfectly captures movement, progress and advancement.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem performs “Gloria” with choreography by Robert Garland and music by Francis Poulenc. (Dance Theatre of Harlem/The Washington Post)

Where the work goes off track is in a final section that abandons the highly character-driven style of the first two-thirds of the work. This section is meant to be an abstract meditation on how racism has held the world back and what truths about humanity it is suppressing.

It was beautifully performed, but it seemed jarring and odd after the first section because there was no continuity to knit it all together. Nearly everything shifted: the movement quality, the use of space, even the lights and the costumes. That disjointedness subtracted some of the power from the work.

“Gloria,” choreographed by Robert Garland, is a tribute to Harlem’s traditions of spirituality and is set to the Francis Poulenc score by the same name.

The music is nothing if not grand, from its first moments when an assertive blast of brass instruments seems as if it should herald the arrival of a high priest. The dancers largely rose to meet its heights, bounding across the stage with gallant skips and managing to project lightness even as they dug their heels into the floor. However, their musicality needed fine-tuning, as most of the work’s many grand jetes hit their zenith a count too early or late.

Ashley Murphy was strong and measured in the solo role, but she seemed to be dancing without breathing. Her movement could have used more expansiveness, a quality that would have helped her fill the music better and match the open and even triumphant sound of the soprano vocals.

The closing work, Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space,” made a sometimes-stuffy art form seem unequivocally cool.

This is the kind of work that tests its dancers in every way — its speed and sprawl demand endurance, its lines and shapes call for unflappable control and nearly contortionist levels of flexibility. Impressively, all 10 performers aced it.

Everything in the work feels contemporary, from its hammering electronic score to the simple black costumes with slivers of fluorescent fabric. But most modern of all is the partnering, with the men and women portrayed as true equals, both capable of summoning elegance or strength, submissiveness or dominance.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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