There are three types of quality dance performances. The first type of dance performance is the typical performance, strong technique, beautiful sets, and lavish costumes. It is entertaining, strong and shows how together or in sync the corps and powerful a company is and it is everything that dance should be. The second type of dance performance is one that demonstrates the companies ability to move identically. Whether it was curated by a director’s guidance or a school’s aesthetic, this type of performance is geared towards a specific look to achieve a very specific artistic goal, thought or portray and idea. Then finally, there is the third type of performance, and of the three, it is the rarest: the performance that moves your soul.
(cover photo by Ashley Lorraine Baker)
I was privileged enough to have the later experience this Friday night in little old Tucson, Arizona at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall. The company, Dance Theatre of Harlem under the legendary, power player Virginia Johnson. If you don’t know who she is, she is dance royalty and probably most known for her Giselle. If you aren’t familiar with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s history, it was founded in 1969 by NYCB legend Arthur Mitchell. Dance Theatre of Harlem made a come back after hiatus in 2012, and now employs sixteen diverse, beautiful dancers of color.
The house was sold out, the crowd was interested in ballet of color, as the majority of the audience as older and white. The conversation around me was ignorant but pleasant. A woman in front of me was commenting to her friends that this wasn’t real ballet but entertaining ballet. Whatever that meant, I wasn’t going to start something with a tiny old lady. It didn’t matter, I was there to see a part of ballet history that is near and dear to my heart. I was lucky enough to get tickets, very good tickets. The lights dimmed, and the show began.
The program included Vessels by Darrell Grand Moultrie, Chaconne by José Limón, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven; Odes to love and Loss by Ulysses Dove, and Return by Robert Garland. As the entire program was spectacular, there was a lot to be said about each piece. The dancing was brilliant, Ingrid Silva shined in Mother Popcorn, the opening movement of Return. Her plush skin and metallic side cut out costume created quite the mood to this James Brown, Alfred Ellis, Aretha Franklin and Carolyn Franklin piece. The company showed off their feel good attitude and pulled incredible tricks. The three women who danced the Ulysses Dove piece were beyond gorgeous. Their striking white costumes, extreme hyperextension and beautiful feet created gorgeous lines. I don’t think the majority of the audience knew what was happening, but it was quite moving. Chaconne was the test of Da’Von Doane, as this Limón solo is quite long and involves solid promenades. Doane had beautiful moments, but it lacked a sense of abandonment or self-reflection. His redeeming moments were Return. Alison Stroming was captivating, intense and inspiring in Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.
But the piece, that truly stole the night was Vessels.
Anytime a man and woman stand on stage it creates a story. Vessels created an intimate feeling of beauty that left me speechless and gave me a profound sense of pride. I was proud to be sitting, watching different dancers of color with different body types, technique, perform and move beautifully. The first section was breathtaking danced by five couples creating individual love stories. It reminded me of my life, different loves, different feelings, different relationships but all under the same concept. The second section was inspiring as four beautiful women blew across the stage. The score by Elio Bosso was beyond gorgeous, literally gorgeous. The lighting design by Clifton Taylor was so beautiful, it was art in itself. The costumes are by George Hudačko. The third section, Love, was danced by Stephanie Rae Williams and Francis Lawerence. This was probably the jewel of the entire evening. The pas de deux was so beautifully choreographed, and so beautifully executed, I teared up. The last time I cried at a dance performance was watching New York City Ballet’s Jewels a few years back. This pas de deux was so spectacular that the audience was silent and roared into applause when it ended. I attended the evening’s performance with a Ballet Education contributor Ashley Baker, and she couldn’t stop raving about Stephanie Rae Williams. Either could I. She literally stole the night.
She was engaging, captivating, technically wonderful and engaged. It was more incredible as she replaced a dancer that evening for the pas de deux. Francis Lawrence was a strong partner that I fell in love with. Watching him partner was beautiful, and more importantly creating those intimate moments with a new partner was wonderful. Williams also performed the pas Baby Baby Baby in Return with Chong Hoon Lee and got the entire audience hot and bothered. It was sexy, soulful and wonderful. It was the most beautiful evening of dance I have experienced in a long time.
Dance Theatre of Harlem truly is a magnificent work of art. The combination of ethnicity, power, strength, beauty and diversity is a testament and hope for the future of colored dancers. The only thing that would have made the night more perfect, is seeing some of the original Balanchine roots. It would have been nice to see this small company perform Balanchine’s Divert since you need five couples. And the five couples of Vessels proved that they could probably dance anything. Despite the company having diverse training, diverse bodies, and ethnicity the company embodied the spirit of movement, the technicalities of ballet, and the freedom of expression that is dance.
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