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Jessica Abrams
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The Broad Stage - Santa Monica College
United States
Greater Los Angeles
Santa Monica, CA

Dance Theatre of Harlem Program Makes Memories

by Jessica Abrams
April 25, 2018
The Broad Stage - Santa Monica College
1310 11th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 434-3200
When art is successful, it evokes feelings; when art is sublime it calls up a series of associations that manage to connect various sensory and intellectual moments – a quick glance with the memory of heartbreak; a musical phrase with a phrase in a book with a phrase of dance that lasts fifteen seconds. And in that brief moment, we may not consciously realize the connection, but a seed has been planted in our psyches and the memory of that moment will continue to live on—either haunting us or giving us pleasure and being for us what Proust’s madeleine was for him.

Such was the case, at least for me, on Friday, April 20th, during a performance of Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. It brought to mind the last time I had seen the company perform, at the Arles Amphitheatre in Arles, France in 1986. I was with my mother and we were traveling through southwestern France and I was wearing a black-and-white patterned skirt that reached my ankles that I had bought at the French equivalent of TJ Maxx and feeling very French. But I digress. This performance, the one last Friday night, was also held in an impressive space worthy of lauding in its own right – a modern take on a California Craftsman and inspired by Italy’s horseshoe opera houses, all wood and glass and perfect acoustics. Designed by Renzo Zecchetto in 2008, the space is part of Santa Monica College and does for Santa Monica what the Disney Hall does for Downtown L.A.

But I digress again. Dance Theatre of Harlem has come a long way since that balmy night in 1986 and it hasn’t: the company is still committed to maintaining an ethnically diverse roster and to honoring the work of choreographers from a variety of backgrounds, while still retaining its stature as a ballet company. The evening opened with a piece by DTH’s resident choreographer, Robert Garland. “Brahms Variations” provided the strongest example of the evening of Arthur Mitchell’s New York City Ballet roots. Part court dance, part square dance, the piece featured ten dancers often on stage at the same time, facing the audience a la Balanchine’s more famous ensemble pieces. Peppering the classical line with an occasional thrust of the hips by the women and tip-toeing baby steps for both men and women, the piece had the feel of a fun pastoral romp, if not a particularly emotionally engaging one.

Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven”, with its simplicity and spare movement, created that mysterious set of associations that I mentioned earlier. Dove, who created several pieces for the Ailey company as well as companies around the world during his short tenure on Earth made this dance during a period of loss in his life. But he did not finish it, and the dance was pieced together by his estate. Set to music by Estonian composer Arvo Part, himself creating an homage to composer Benjamin Britton, the piece offered a series of spare movements that seemed to operate separately from the music and yet couldn’t have existed without it. The music offered the sound of a bell tolling as a way to mark time; the dance did the same by beginning and ending with the six dancers coming together to stand in a circle, reminiscent of a Mexican candle holder. Clad in white unitards, the dancers mixed lyricism with movement that was at once jagged and staccato. Much of the dance was done with legs in parallel position, although a signature move had the dancers in second position grand plie, one foot flexed, the other flat on the floor.

The last piece of the evening involved the entire company and took the work of Balanchine, with his subtle tweaking of the classical line, one step further. “Vessels” by choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, was a show-stopper. Moving at breakneck speed through moves that incorporated so many different styles and vernaculars from one millisecond to the next, the dancers undulated their upper bodies while performing intricate footwork. In quick snapshots, ballet was mixed with Broadway mixed with Gaga Dance mixed with Afro-Carribbean. Lifts felt like dancers were flowers jumping into each other’s arms and then, for a split second, wilting. The music of Ezio Bosso provided just the right percussion and speed.

Although as Havelock Ellis said, “Dance is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts, because it is no mere translation or abstraction from life, it is life itself”, watching dance can often bring together various memories and places in time where a movement was simply a movement, and now it is something more. Last Friday at the Broad Stage, Dance Theatre of Harlem infused every movement with a lasting significance and one that will create its own memories and associations in years to come.
(Center) Crystal Serrano, Davon Doane and Dance Theatre of Harlem in 'Brahms Variations'.

(Center) Crystal Serrano, Davon Doane and Dance Theatre of Harlem in "Brahms Variations".

Photo © & courtesy of Ben Gibbs

Anthony Santos and Alicia Mae Holloway in 'Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.'

Anthony Santos and Alicia Mae Holloway in "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven."

Photo © & courtesy of Ben Gibbs

Jorge Andre's Villarini, Alicia Mae Holloway, Anthony Santos, Ingrid Silva, Dylan Santos and Lindsey Croop in 'Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.'

Jorge Andre's Villarini, Alicia Mae Holloway, Anthony Santos, Ingrid Silva, Dylan Santos and Lindsey Croop in "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven."

Photo © & courtesy of Ben Gibbs

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