DANCE THEATER OF HARLEM (Annenberg Center): A deserved world-class reputation

Republished by kind permission from The Dance Journal.

Photo credit: Rachel Neville

Photo credit: Rachel Neville

The world of dance is not an easy one in which to succeed. In fact, it’s damn hard. However, there are a rarefied few which, through dint of determination to survive and amazing talent, rise to the top of their profession, acquiring along the way a world class reputation.

When I found out that the Dance Theatre of Harlem was due to appear in Philadelphia at the Annenberg Center, I signed up for the assignment immediately. I had never before seen their work, but I had read that they are a world class organization, and so I considered it essential I see them in furtherance of my education in quality modern dance.

I now consider it essential that anyone who appreciates modern dance make every effort to see the Dance Theatre of Harlem. They are nothing short of exquisite.

DTH appeared at the Annenberg Center last weekend (March 3-5) with a program of three relatively short works of what I would classify as modern ballet. I specify “ballet” instead of the more generic “modern dance” because the choreography was rooted in the tradition and vocabulary of classic ballet rather than the more free-for-all language of modern dance. The emphasis was on grace of movement, precision of line and poised discipline, with the four different choreographers represented here offering works that excelled in these qualities.

The first segment of the program opened with Vessels (2014), choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrio. Set to music by Ezio Bosso, the emphasis here was on grace of movement, as the dancers spun and few across the stage in intricate spirals and circles. The choreography was elegantly simple, and the dancers precise and poised, showing classical technique worthy of any ballet stage I can imagine.

The second piece of the first segment was In The Mirror of Her Mind (premiered by DTH in 2013), choreographed by Christopher Huggins. This piece featured four dancers, one woman and three men, as the men acted out various roles and interactions with the central woman. Be they lovers, muses or memories, the woman remained front and center as she weaved an intricate tapestry of different emotions with the men. The piece was set to music by Henryk Gorecki (Symphony No. 3, 2nd movement) which was simple but absolutely beautiful, as was the dancing accompanying it.

Next was offered Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss (DTH premier 2013) by Ulysses Dove, and staged by Anne Dabrowski. DTH edged closer to “modern” territory here, without losing a bit of classical technique. The choreography was a bit more muscular here, with the dancers showing more strength, though with a controlled discipline that was impressive to see.

The company let its hair down a little bit with the final piece: Return (1999) by Philadelphia native and DTH resident choreographer, Robert Garland. Set to a soundtrack of various R&B artists that included James Brown and Aretha Franklin, the piece’s fusion of urban grit and sensuality with neoclassical ballet showed why this piece is among the most popular in DTH’s repertoire.

And if the evidence of one’s own eyes is not enough, the response of the packed house—which nearly brought the roof down on our heads—is a reminder that the Dance Theatre of Harlem is indeed a world class company that earns its reputation anew with each performance.

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About the author

Gary L. Day

Gary L. Day is a produced playwright, director/producer and critic who has been covering the arts in Philadelphia since the Clinton administration. He has also worked as an editor, an illustrator and a bar manager. He is also an expert on all things Star Trek and Captain America.