Dance Theatre of Harlem opened its 31st season at City Center on Sept. 6 with the world premiere of Augustus van Heerden's "Memento Mori" (translation: "to remember death"). Van Heerden says that he believes death "may not be as dark as we think it is."
His words were realized in the mesmerizing performance by Ramon Thielen as "Death." He initially came into view via a small circling light, but managed to dominate the scene, not with his dancing alone, but also with his stunning appearance, as he possesses the stature and figure of an Adonis. There are six other dancers in the picture, but even when Thielen stands in repose watching the others, eyes are steadily drawn to him.
When he chose the dancer who will meet his demise (Kip Sturm), and performed a dance of death with him, the atmosphere was fraught with tension. The chosen one didn't struggle, but rather seemed to mirror death's movements, as he eventually faded into the shadow—apparently quite willingly.
Kellye A. Saunders, Caroline Rocher, Donald Williams, Lenore Pavlakos, and James Washington didn't merely serve as background. They all managed distinctive performances, which added momentum to van Heeden's words and visualized choreography.
Traditionalists are advised not to worry when they are about to view Act Two of "Creole Giselle." The choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot remains quite intact. Only the scenario, by designer Carl Michel and artistic director Arthur Mitchell, has been changed, setting the tale in a 19th century Creole community in antebellum Louisiana. Giselle, no longer the European peasant, is here the daughter of a freed slave, and Giselle's betrayer Albert (Albrecht in the familiar production) is the scion of a prominent Creole family.
Differences from the original ballet are mainly in the staging and direction by Frederic Franklin, and the bayou setting by Carl Michel, who also redesigned the costumes. The Willis are no longer garbed in tutus, but in flowing chiffon gowns, slightly reminiscent of the chitons worn by the women of ancient Greece. Albert no longer simply walks onto the scene, but makes his entrance disembarking from a boat. Upon Giselle's entrance from the tomb, her veil isn't torn off by unseen hands, but instead flies upwards, vanishing in the ozone. All of these flourishes added enormous color to this version of Giselle, without disturbing the familiar choreography.
Act Two opened with the traditional scene, that of huntsmen gambling. They were set upon by a couple of Willis before fleeing to the tolling of the bells at midnight. This was a new sequence, as the Willis generally do not surface until later on. (Why the men are gathered at a grave site at midnight has never been clarified, not in the nearly 160-year existence of the ballet.)
The emergence of Kellye A. Saunders as Giselle created tremendous excitement, for she was everything called for. Although she displayed flawless technique, her dramatic mastery of the role (just about the most difficult in all ballet) was realized beyond belief. She was completely the tender woman as she forgave Albert for his betrayal and attempted to shield him from the wrathful Queen of the Willis, never wavering in maintaining the illusion of an unearthly, lithe apparition. This young dancer is obviously headed toward the roster of all the immortals who have performed Giselle through the years.
As the impervious Queen, Lenore Pavlakos displayed brilliance, as well as dramatic intensity. Tanya Wideman and Caroline Rocher were her steadfast assistants. Kip Sturm's Albert was certainly technically adept, if somewhat bland histrionically.
Frederic Franklin's expansive staging resulted in a "Giselle" of unlimited dimensions. Franklin proved that classics can be respected, and yet gain measures of originality.
Three choreographers contributed to "South African Suite": Laveen Naidu, Augustus van Heerden, and artistic director Arthur Mitchell. And was it ever a gem of a creation, commencing with soloist Christiane Cristo as the "Enduring Spirit."
Bethania Gomes and James Washington, as "Felines," were utterly delightful as they represented the small and big cats of the area—properly playful as kittens, requisitely majestic as king and queen of the jungle.
Paunika Jones, Kevin Thomas, and Leslie Anne Cardona were the exhilarating spirits of "Youth," while Mark Burns and Ramon Thielen raised the collective blood pressure as they led the men through "Warriors."
Camille Parson electrified in the demanding solo "Blessing," combining not only authentic African and contemporary dance, but utilizing pointe work as well, ultimately achieving a fantastic blend. Following which, she led a group in the sequence simply titled "Women."
"A Gathering" saw the entire company in a rousing conclusion that left us as exhilarated as if we had swallowed a magnum of champagne. Accompaniments by the Soweto String Quartet contributed enormously to the work's success.
ABT to Visit China
For the first time in its history, American Ballet Theatre will appear in mainland China when it performs on a three-week Asian tour, Sept. 25-Oct.14.
The repertoire will include the full length La Bayadere and Don Quixote, in addition to repertory pieces.
ABT will present its annual Fall City Center season one week after returning from the overseas engagement, from Oct. 24-Nov.5.
Coyote Dancers to Hunter College
Coyote Dancers, under the artistic direction of Maher Benham, with musical direction by Daniel Roumain, will return to the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, Sept. 21-24. Venue: Hunter College's Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse, 695 Park Ave., NYC (at E. 68 St.) All performances at 8 pm. Tickets: $20 ($10 for seniors, students, and dancers) can be purchased at the Kaye box office, or by calling (212) 772-4448.