BECKET — If the burnish on this golden anniversary year of Dance Theatre of Harlem was partially dimmed by the passing, in September, of co-founder Arthur Mitchell, the company's visit to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week feels like a bright celebration of the past, the now, and, dare we hope, a vibrant future. The group — co-founded in 1969 by Mitchell and Karel Shook in order to provide serious ballet dancers of color a chance at a professional ballet career at a time when few such opportunities existed — has been directed for the past decade by Virginia Johnson, one of DTH's first dancers, and a longtime star.
While fully-diversified ballet companies is the obvious yet still-unmet goal in our country, it's also illuminating to see familiar works performed by a cast entirely composed of dancers of color.
And which comes first, good dancers or good repertoire? Since its return in 2012 from an eight-year, nail-biting hiatus, the company has had a fine assortment of dancers but the quality of repertoire has wavered. The Pillow program is somewhere in the middle, but the dancing easily elevates the evening to a high standard.
Darrell Grand Moultrie's 2017 "Harlem on My Mind" is a giddy ballet choreographed to a score mostly of instrumental versions of jazz standards. It's high-octane and easy to digest, but it's made with quality ingredients: Flashy but classy. The pas de deux throughout are conventionally cast — male/female — but the pairs are teams, equal partners in play, as Amanda Smith and Anthony Santos particularly underscore in their duet. Everyone's hips swing insouciantly, everyone's shoulders shimmy winkingly at the audience; the men are occasionally corny, while the women keep their cool. There's no end to Christopher Charles McDaniel's charm in his "Harlem's Finest" solo, though the various duets and ensemble sections are likewise charismatic. Costumed by Rebecca Turk in cheerful magentas, lilacs, and pinks, the dance's overall sunniness is grounded for a moment by Choong Hoon Lee's yearning, physically eloquent "Soul of the Hood" solo.
Thanks to Mitchell's status as a principal dancer with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet, DTH's repertoire has been graced by many of the master choreographer's works. This program includes Balanchine's 1953 "Valse Fantaisie," a short frolic for a lead male/female couple and four women, staged for DTH by Deborah Wingert. If "Valse" isn't one of Mr B's most valuable gems (the opening moments felt just a bit fusty, what with the almost-too-grand orchestration of the Mikhail Glinka music and the potentially-stiff Romantic era costuming by Larae Theige Hascall, the corps indeed at first leaning stiffly out of their balanc s) it does afford the cast a chance to sparkle in this program's most classically-challenging choreography. Thursday night's leads, Ingrid Silva and McDaniel, did just that.
Silva was glorious: she's a sincere, "quiet" performer, fully present yet not overtly "selling" the movement. She seems caught up in the moment, in the music, so that she can try biting at this phrase or nibbling at that one, but always savoring. Her frequent smile is genuine, as if she's truly delighted.
The bulk of McDaniel's job here is dedicated to his ballerina, and the overall smoothness of the duet work in "Valse" is indicative of the company's apparent overall improvement in partnering — a weakness in previous years. This element is key in Christopher Wheeldon's 2012 "This Bitter Earth," an elegiac, just-this-shy-of-maudlin duet set to Clyde Otis' score which melds a Max Richter composition with Dinah Washington's performance of the title song. Thursday night's couple, Crystal Serrano and Dylan Santos, both sublime here, executed the often whisper-slippery partnering with an efficient seamlessness that was tender, poignantly intimate.
The closer, the premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's expanded version of "Balamouk," is a determinedly mischievous dance, a well-crafted lark. Choreographed to a score that includes now ominous/now jaunty music by Les Yeux Noirs, Lisa Gerrard, and Rene Aubry, the dance itself is likewise capricious. The cast's various heights and physiques are celebrated in Mark Zappone's whimsical, flowing, pastel-hued, individualized costumes — some of the men get skirts and they look damn fine. Les Dickert's stark, haze-filled lighting design adds to the intriguingly enigmatic atmosphere, through which a faux-mysterious hint of drama pokes through now and again: why is that woman (the once again excellent Silva) pointing portentously? Why do the other women smile conspiratorially out at us as they dance in with their blithe male counterparts? But the hints are apparently just red herrings; Ochoa, this year's winner of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award is having a bit of fun with us, and with her dancers, whom she nevertheless takes seriously. (Another incongruous, though beautiful, theme is Silva's occasionally rippling port de bras and bourr es that transform her momentarily into that balletic touchstone, the swan.) In any event, though there are some lovely moments of "sisterhood" among the women, this is a community, a party, a rave, a ritual, one we can peek at for a while before the group closes ranks again, as they do at the beginning, in a circle of light, a circle of magic.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.