Jacob's Pillow: Dance Theatre of Harlem is lean, young and finding its way
BECKET -- As most balletomanes surely are aware by now, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has returned after a nearly nine-year hiatus during which the company examined its priorities and apparently secured the sustenance to carry it more safely into the future.
Now under the artistic direction of Virginia Johnson, the troupe's celebrated longtime prima ballerina, the company is filled with a leaner group of 18 fresh, attractive young dancers whose enthusiasm helped launch the 2013 season Wednesday evening in the Ted Shawn Theatre at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Appropriately, this was the same stage on which the company, soon after it was founded by Arthur Mitchell, made its official debut in 1970.
Wednesday's performance was the inaugural event in this year's "Lift Ev'ry Voice" Festival, celebrating African-American heritage and culture in the Berkshires.
The program proved ambitious, and long, with five pieces, offering a variety of moods.
The initial idea for George Balanchine's "Agon" emerged from Igor Stravinsky who suggested a suite of dances based on a 17th-century manual of French court dances, and eventually it included a pas de deux created especially for Mitchell in 1957, when he was a member of the New York City Ballet. Mitchell installed it as a staple in the repertory of Dance Theatre of Harlem and it is held in a unique reverence.
But "Agon" imposes tough challenges -- both in the intricate movement developed by Balanchine and the restive and comprehensive score of Stravinsky, who at the time was a deep admirer of Anton Webern. Bravely, the 12 dancers -- four men, eight women -- assigned to "Agon" burrowed into the 20-minute work attempting to respond to its supreme demands, but in most respects, "Agon" remains a work-in-progress for this incarnation of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Intermittently, flashes of brilliance emerged -- in the Sarabande pas de trois led by Taurean Green, an extremely nimble young dancer who happens to be an alumnus of The School at Jacob's Pillow. Commendable also was the sprightly spirit of Chyrstyn Fentroy in the deceptively difficult Bransle Gay solo, along with Fentroy's execution of the Bransle Double pas de trois with Francis Lawrence and Anthony Savoy.
Michaela DePrince proved an agile, if slightly impetuous Black Swan in the Act III pas de deux from "Swan Lake." Her multiple fouettes were dazzling, but perhaps given the young years of the two dancers, strong chemistry seemed absent between DePrince and the prince who seeks to captivate her, Samuel Wilson, who otherwise made a few deft moves in solo.
Alvin Ailey's "The Lark Ascending," set to Ralph Vaughan Williams' ruminative score. offered the evening's loveliest moments. Set against a pastel impressionistic backdrop, this metaphor for tracing a girl's maturation to young womanhood, is danced exquisitely en pointe by Gabrielle Salvatto and Jenelle Figgins, ably assisted by Frederick Davis and Taurean Green, who proved particularly strong in partnering.
"Far But Close,"" a new work by John Alleyne, with a string-and-keyboard score by Daniel Bernard Roumain and less scintillating spoken text by Daniel Beaty, explores an urban tale of a couple who meet and spar on the subway, except that Alleyne tenders two couples to tell the story. The perennial pick-up tussle over love versus casual sex, is what the dance's title implies, explained the annoying voiceover.
In the dance, Ashley Murphy and Da'Von Doane constituted the more ready-and-willing pair, while the genial, but reserved Stephanie Rae Williams and Jehbreal Jackson exercised more caution in a piece that, at 19 minutes, ran too long, exhausting its fun quotient.
Exploding in a blaze of color, "Return," Robert Garland's 1999 hybrid of balletic and social dance movements, seemed to delight its participants in a loosely connected five-part piece set mainly to songs of James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
DePrince and Green began with a rollicking "Mother Popcorn"; Williams and Savoy followed with an equally rambunctious "Baby, Baby, Baby," and Green led the full company in the vigorous finale "Superbad."
This new edition of Dance Theatre of Harlem, at the Pillow through Sunday, bears watching as it begins to relax more comfortably into the legend preceding it, and, under Johnson, formulates instincts for a new age.