Friday night brought two landmarks together: the kickoff of the Kentucky Center’s 35th season of programming and the 50th anniversary of the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Former director of programming Ken Clay first brought the dance company to Louisville in 1984; Louisville was the first city on its tour when the company re-formed in 2012 and they’ve been here many other times too. Last night’s packed house roared approval of this evidence of a long-term relationship between Louisville and this premiere ballet company.
In her curtain speech Artistic Director Virginia Johnson dedicated the evening’s performance to recently-deceased co-founder Arthur Mitchell, and it certainly felt like his spirit was uplifted in the passion and precision, discipline and joy that was on display among last night’s performers.
The program opened with the brand new “Balamouk,” choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to music by Lex Yeux Noirs — from whom the title comes — and others. The opening tableau and movements — repeated in mirror staging at the end of the piece — felt like an homage to other Dance Theatre of Harlem ensemble pieces. Within a tight-knit ensemble, there were also breakout moments for individual and small group sequences. The sculptural quality of Les Dickert’s lighting enhanced the dancers’ stage pictures, and Mark Zappone’s autumnal-hued costumes flickered and flowed pleasingly.
After a brief pause, José Limón’s “Chaconne” to J.S. Bach’s Partita Number 2 in D Minor provided the spiritual heart of the evening. Originally choreographed both by and for Limón in 1942, the ballet has been performed by many male and female dancers in the succeeding seventy-plus years. Last night Stephanie Rae Williams filled the Whitney stage with the beautifully-linear attitudes of Limón, both informing and being informed by the sublime clarity of Bach’s music.
The center of the evening was inspired by the work of women; Dianne McIntyre’s 2016 “Change” is a powerful testament to the work and spirit of women, embodied last night by Amanda Smith, Yinet Fernandez and Daphne Lee. In McIntyre’s first choreography for Dance Theatre of Harlem (also her first foray into ballet) the modern dance performer and choreographer evokes the strength and endurance both of individual African American women and also of their collective impact across time. There’s a moment of stillness in which the three dancers are posed kneeling, standing proud, and holding a back beginning to curl under the weight of age and work; a moment of history and three ages of women perfectly conflated. Costumer Oran Bumroongchart also makes a nod to the legacy of Dance Theatre of Harlem by crafting leotards that are a patchwork of tights worn by the company’s former dancers. We stand on the shoulders of our foremothers.
Each dancer is given an extended solo, as one passes a metaphorical baton to the next, and each dancer commands the physical space of the Whitney stage with assurance and verve. The accompaniment is provided by recordings of the excellent Spelman College Glee Club and percussion pieces by Eli Fountain. This juxtaposition emphasized the long line of historical women who “could be called warriors for change” (per the program notes) and amplified the contrast between balletic, modern dance, and African dance traditions that are embedded in the choreography.
To see “Change” in a week which was historic for women of color winning elections is a powerful reminder that art is not created in a vacuum, and that art can both influence and reflect larger social change.
“Harlem on my Mind” is a jazzy, feel-good nod to the music that many associate with black musicians and the heyday of Harlem, as well as staples of musical theater. Sassy, bright costumes by Rebecca Turk add to this fun feeling for the final work of the evening.
Darrell Grand Moultrie has created a suite of five dances that include two solos and a duet bookended by two full company pieces. It was commissioned by the University of Wyoming in 2017 and celebrates the joy his music teacher found in jazz.
The company brings high energy to the full ensemble numbers, embodying the atmosphere of a dance club as our evening drew to a close. “Soul of the Hood,” a solo danced by Choong Hoon Lee, is the highlight of this ballet, as he combines athleticism and grace in the short piece.
The evening’s program, although featuring predominantly newer work of the company, is a testament to Mitchell’s original vision: following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he wanted to create high quality ballet and allied arts experience for the Harlem community. This vision now spans the globe while staying faithful to its roots. Louisville is fortunate to have a thirty four-year tradition of Dance Theatre of Harlem performances and, to paraphrase Kentucky Center President Kim Baker’s opening remarks last night, here’s to thirty four more.