In Its 50th Year, Dance Theatre of Harlem Still Excites

by Courtney Colón for The Dance Journal | photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

The incomparable Dance Theatre of Harlem has served as the artist-in-residence this season at the Annenberg Center. Bursting with talent and committed to community outreach, the company hosted master classes, performed for local students, and concluded their residency with a robust program full of virtuosity and personality.

The evening opened with a world premiere by Robert Garland, a Philadelphia native and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s resident choreographer. Nyman String Quartet #2 is a vibrant piece highlighting minimalist music, unadorned dancing, and a stage laid bare. The rhythmic and fast-paced music by English composer Michael Nyman was matched by Garland’s quick leaps, turns, and nimble phrasing. The score is a mixed composite of Western classical and South Indian Bharata Natyam music. So, too, does Garland blend styles, showcasing here balletic movements blended with fluid gyrations of the hips and shoulders. A joyful piece, Nyman String Quartet #2 felt at times disordered and frenzied.

Dianne Mcintyre’s Change (2016) was both a commemoration of the past and a look towards the future. Profound and resonant, Change read as an anthem exploring issues of women and race. The trio-brilliantly danced by Yinet Fernandez, Daphne Lee, and Amanda Smith-was emotional and charged, viscerally felt as each of the three women (outfitted in patchwork leotards crafted from the tights worn by former dancers at DTH), evoked the image of powerful “warriors of change.” Danced en pointe but with a heavy emphasis on Mcintyre’s modern dance vocabulary, Fernandez, Lee, and Smith embraced movements grounded and sharp, all right angles and cutting lines. Embodying the warrior spirit, each woman vocalized their strength, emitting sounds wrung from deep within. A deeply felt piece choreographed by a woman of color and danced by women of color; Dance Theatre of Harlem continues to showcase how the ballet world benefits immensely through diversity.

Featuring music by such iconoclasts as James Brown and Aretha Franklin, Garland’s crowd-pleasing Return (1999) was injected with humor, wit, and a deep, soulful groove. Mixing classic ballet technique with funkified contemporary dance moves and a dash of a soul-train line, Return showcased that Dance Theatre of Harlem swag the company has been known for. Christopher Charles McDaniel, in particular, was a standout, fully embodying the rhythm-and-blues music and Garland’s hybridized classical soul-style, while drawing the biggest laughs from the audience. Showcasing bold geometric patterns and choreography that allowed the company dancers to put each of their personalities on full display, Return was the perfect send-off to keep the crowd smiling well after the curtain closed.

In its fiftieth year, Dance Theatre of Harlem still has the capacity to surprise and enthrall. Each of these three ballets showcased a company that is multi-faceted, able to quickly transform from one style and feeling to the next. With outstanding technique and choreography that is looking towards the future while still honoring its past, Dance Theatre of Harlem will surely be entertaining and galvanizing audiences for years to come.

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