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DTH Tour Winter 2004

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I just saw Dance Theatre of Harlem perform a triple bill at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. On the program were Serenade and Apollo and a 1999 Robert Garland piece called Return.

The corps in Serenade was a wonder: disciplined, though never academic, and dancing to the same pulse. From where did Arthur Mitchell assemble a group of women with such beautiful, enlivened arms and such open chests? How did he get them to perform as such an ensemble, especially on a long tour, with several trips back from the West Coast to NYC? Not much of DTH's repertoire is set for large classical corps work; much of it's Balanchine rep is the smaller works, like Apollo,, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Concerto Barocco, Allegro Brilliante, Agon, etc. with the exception being Stars and Stripes. (Corsaire and Paquita are also in the rep.) Bravi to Mitchell and his coaching and teaching staff.

I'm not sure what version DTH is using, but there were so many details that I had never seen before. For example, both the Russian Girl (beginning of Scherzo a la Russe movement) and the Waltz Girl (end of the movement) do arabesque to each side, then do one diagonally back on the first side, and diagonally back on the second side. Both NYCB and Suzanne Farrell Ballet ballerinas do alternating, flat arabesques. Where the Waltz Girl does her beats, there was a very clear distinction between one set low, the next set higher. It gave much more emphasis and shape to the choreography.

From checking out the DTH website, Christiane Cristo-Ezewoko danced Dark Angel; whoever was the taller of Alicia Graf and Lenore Pavlakos danced Russian Girl, and the shorter woman danced Waltz Girl. The principals had the same gorgeous arms as the corps, and their upper body work in the last movement was a joy to watch. Cristo-Ezewoko did a magical thing at the end of the supported turning arabesque: she raised her front arm to the heavens and her eyes and head followed her hand. Russian Girl had high, quick, spacious jetes and lots of energy, but the most affecting moment was the graciousness of the bow she took at the end of the second movement, after she'd come downstage through the two lines of corps girls, with those beautiful, sweeping arms.

The audience really liked Serenade, but many people did not know what to make of Apollo, danced in the complete version, including the ladies behind me who sighed and chatted with boredom. PNB hasn't offered Apollo in the last decade, so Seattle audiences are not familiar with the ballet. This is only the second time I've seen the complete version; but this time, I could only think about what it must have looked like in mid-1920's Paris. It was great to see the contrasting use of three women and a man in these two ballets.

Lenore Pavlakos made a vivid impression as Leto, a strong goddess from whom it is completely conceivable that Apollo sprang. The Nymphs were playful and fully engaged. These were not "throw-away" parts for Raintree Halpern and Ebony Haswell. My problem with the performance was the three muses. Andrea Long's Calliope and Kellye A. Saunders' Polyhymnia didn't have the same energy. They interacted with each other, but didn't seem to move as if they were in the same ballet. Long's energy matched Tai Jimenez' Terpsichore much more.

Long's Calliope was a real drama queen: she went from full-blown fury -- and having just seen Michael Cacoyanis' movie version of Elektra, it was clear to me what the genesis of this interpretation could be. But just before the chords of the dark strings turn to the pizzicato and the "hoppy" part of her variation, she smiled head on, and changed to the light, comic persona. A very wonderful touch. Saunders' technique wasn't strong enough for Polyhymnia. First, she has kind of gangly legs that don't convey strength or line. Second, she started to bobble right at the beginning of her variation and never stopped, and the turns into arabesque plie were plain weak.

Jimenez' Terpsichore was strong and playful, in both the variation and the pas de deux. Teaching Apollo was a fun thing. This worked perfectly with Rasta Thomas' Apollo. Before the performance, when I read in the program that Thomas has been in an Academy Awards show, and "is featured in the soon-to-be released feature film One Last Dance starring Patrick Swayze," my heart sank. Several minutes into the performance, he emerged, arms to his sides, swaddled in gauze, and I was transfixed for the rest of the performance. He is the Real Thing: pliant, deep plie, turnout, a perfect fifth position in his solos that he didn't cheat to move out of, open chest, full-bodied movement, clean feet, vibrant eyes, a great sense of humor, and musical.

I'm sure seeing the complete version helped, especially seeing the Nymphs give the lute to Apollo and watching his reaction, but it was the first time the drama or story was conveyed to me:

Thomas was a boy with a new toy. He strummed it -- wow, what was that noise, did I do that? What happens when I move it this way? What happens if I put this on the ground and turn it over? I can move around to this noise, but I'm not very good at playing or moving. Voila -- out come three charming young women to teach me. I watch them all, absorbing everything, and send them away. Now I put together what they've all taught me [not just Terpsichore, the winner] and dance around. Then Terpsichore comes back, and she teaches me to dance with another person. Now we're all together, and boy, am I strong! I can get them to pull my chariot, and there's the stairway to heaven.

Thomas was a sincere Apollo. He wasn't a wuss -- he had plenty of strength and boyish arrogance, which ebbed and flowed -- but he was willing to accept what the muses had to offer him. One telling detail was that after Calliope finishes her variation, he didn't turn his back to her, a gesture that I always find harsh and which makes me wonder why Calliope ever shows up for the rest of the ballet. When seeing the "Danish gods" -- Martins father and son, Nikolaj Hubbe -- I always felt/feel there's something arch about their interpretation of the unformed Apollo, a little too knowing, with too much emphasis on the musical jokes. Thomas played the straight man to the music, and it was very effective.

Thomas' Apollo may have been a god, but he was not an aristocrat. He was more likely to behave as a querrelous member of Greek god society. After all, even Zeus was always wheedling and negotiating; he didn't sit on his throne from on high and shoot down thunderbolts.

The last piece, Return was the "audience participation ballet": rhythmic clapping, woofing, whistling, etc. It was a lot of fun, because how often do women get to show their appreciation, so to speak, for muscular men in Lycra shaking their booties? The music was five songs alternating between James Brown and Aretha Franklin, so it was easy to take Balanchine's advice and enjoy the concert. I think the first movement was the strongest; only a couple of segments matched it. It didn't have a lot of ballet in it after the first five minutes or so, but the moving bodies were wonderful to watch anyway. After a really rousing opening to "Mother Popcorn," the second part began in silence, as Alicia Graf in silhouette walked onstage slowly before an orange backlit wall, stopped in profile, bend backwards from the waist, and did some combination of undulating movement through every vertebrae of her spine and neck so that they made several "S"es. Made my jaw drop. The fourth part, to "Call Me," had Aretha Franklin singing "I love you, and I love you too, and I love you," as Caroline Rocher, in another set of four, moved from one man to another to a third.

Music was recorded -- bad -- but the sound system in The Paramount sounded really good, at least from the orchestra level.

I was very happy to see several gaggles of bunheads in the audience, as well as a lot of young girls who came with an adult. It's frustrating sometimes to see great companies tour through Seattle and to see very few people who look like dancers in the audience, but tonight was the happy exception.

In tomorrow's casting in the printed program, Andrea Long, Paunika Jones, and Tai Jimenez are the women in Serenade; Addul Manzano is listed as Apollo, Leanne Codrington as Calliope, Christiane Cristo-Ezewoko as Polyhymnia, and Alicia Graf as Terpsichore. There were several changes from the printed program tonight, so there may be some tomorrow as well.

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