Although Dance Theatre of Harlem has won worldwide acclaim during its numerous tours, New York has been bereft of the company's appearances. We saw only one performance by DTH in New York, and that was at Battery Park in the summer of 2002.
Under the auspices of Lincoln Center Festival 2003, the company came into the New York State Theater for seven performances July 8-13. We saw Program A on the matinee of July 12, which consisted of Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" and Michael Smuin's "St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet."
"The Four Temperaments" was originally presented in 1946 by Ballet Society, a precursor of New York City Ballet. According to long-ago lore, mankind was made up of four temperaments—melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric. The ballet remains one of the finest examples of the vast changing stylistic forms that Balanchine conceived over the years. It also remains one of the master choreographer's most complex. But the dancers of DTH flowed into the varied nuances with a sense of ease.
Ramon Thielen portrayed "Melancholic." Although joined by two eager ladies, Jaime Kotrba and Melissa Morrissey, he attempts upward movement, but seems discouraged and is soon left to himself. He walks wearily offstage, bent backward, close to the ground, displaying a back seemingly made of steel.
A twisting, almost torturous pas de deux performed by Paunika Jones and Kevin Thomas distinguished "Sanguinic." This section touches on the humorous side when four women enter in an eccentric, driven walk that almost gives the appearance of the Furies out of Greek mythology. Undaunted by their aggressive presence, the two principals go off quite jauntily.
Jones and Thomas—as well as the four determined ladies: Adriane Richburg, Ashley Murphy, Briana Lopez, and Danielle Thomas—contributed about the only humor extant in the rather somber but crisp ballet.
Antonio Douthit as the "Phlegmatic" soul was indeed synonymous with the word's definition—by turns agitated, sluggish, and apathetic—distinguishing the differences admirably.
"Choleric" would seem the only section where the woman takes the lead. Leanne Codrington was the one who, on this occasion, vents her fury as she is supported by three men. But she remains the high-and-mighty one as the ballet concludes into a sort of reprise of the four sections.
Victoria Simon staged the ballet, and all the dancers involved rate an A plus for their masterful response to the enormously difficult formations that make up "The Four Temperaments."
Michael Smuin was most certainly aware that DTH possesses some of the most eclectic dancers seen anywhere. Nothing is beyond their scope—ballet, contemporary, ethnic, and jazz. And has he ever achieved a thorough utilization of their versatility in his latest work for the company, "St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet"!
The ballet's original concept and libretto are by Jack Wrangler, adapted from the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer-Arma Bontemps-Countee Cullen musical, which played on Broadway in 1946 and was in turn based on Bontemps' novel, "God Sends Sunday." Smuin has stated, "In creating the project, I have used almost all of the music from 'St. Louis Woman' among other Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer creations. In addition, in order to translate the story from book to ballet, my focus was on the various personalities and situations of the story, and not to create a literal translation of the book."
The action takes place in the Rocking Horse Club, which is a hangout for gamblers, jockeys, ne'er-do-wells, and their women in the St. Louis of 1946.
Part-time gangster and club owner Biglow Brown has discarded his sweet young girlfriend Lila for Della Green. The Green-Biglow attraction is cut short by the arrival of the cocky jockey Little Augie, resulting in some terrific choreographic sequences where the lady seems about to be pulled apart by the two battling males.
Since she favors the jockey, Biglow's death is inevitable; ex-lover Lila shoots him. Hovering over all this is the symbolic figure of Death, who sees all but remains unseen as he goes about setting the dancers' destinies. There is an interpolated ballet performed by Death and his cohorts. Still, as the program notes indicate, "In the end love reigns supreme."
There is everything sprightly, sparkling, and utterly satisfying in Smuin's jazz choreography and the individual characterizations. The two leading men—Kip Sturm as Biglow Brown and Duncan Cooper as Little Augie—were mighty effective in their constantly sneering countenances, and their dancing drew figurations to match their sardonic attitudes. Ramon Thielen as Death was a strongly stinging presence, and Floyd Williams and Faruma Williams, a super tap dance team, brought the house down with their routine.
If we found the males superior, we have no intention of overlooking the lovely ladies. As warranted, Akua Parker's Della Green was sexily searing, and Amy Johnson's Butterfly no less so. Kellye A. Saunders, in the role of abandoned love Lila, was deeply moving with her winsome presence. The entire company performed with brio to spare.
In addition to Michael Smuin's bubbling choreography, accolades are also due costume designer Willa Kim, set designer Tony Walton, and conductor Joseph E. Fields. Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell was the executive producer.
Printz Dance Project at Joyce Soho
San Francisco-based choreographer Stacey Printz and her fusion dance company, Printz Dance Project, will be performing at Joyce Soho as part of their fifth season tour, returning following their 2002 engagement. The six works being presented are "Shift," "L7," "Inside Out," "From These Mountains," "Swimming," and "Lifeline."
Venue: Joyce Soho, 155 Mercer St., NYC. Performances: Fri.-Sun., Aug. 1-3, at 8 pm. Tickets: $12, call 1-212-334-7479 for reservations and additional information.
Dance on Camera Deadline
Dance Films Association announces a call for entries for its 32nd annual Dance on Camera Festival, which is also its eighth collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The 2004 festival will be held over two weekends, Fri. and Sat. Jan. 9-10 and 16-17, at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St., plaza level, NYC.
DFA offers a cash prize of $1,000 for the best of festival as chosen by a jury of distinguished dance and film artists.
The deadline for all entries is Sept. 15, 2003. Direct all questions regarding the festival to Deirdre Towers, Dance Films Association, Inc., 48 West 21st St., #907, New York, NY 10010. Phone/Fax: 1-212-727-0764.