Review: After 50 Years, Dance Theater of Harlem Looks Back and Up
It was time to tell the story again, and who better to tell it than Cicely Tyson? She was there, after all, in 1968, just after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when the African-American ballet star Arthur Mitchell called her to his apartment at 2 a.m. She was there when he asked, “What should we do?” and when he said, “I have an idea.”
The idea, and what became of it, was the reason that the 94-year-old Ms. Tyson, glamorous and charming, was at New York City Center on Wednesday. The occasion was the 50th-anniversary gala of Dance Theater of Harlem, the company that Mitchell formed (with the ballet teacher Karel Shook) to show that African-Americans could dance ballet — and excel at it. And Ms. Tyson was telling the origin story because Mitchell could not. He died in September.
So the gala and the three performances that followed were not only anniversary celebrations, but also tributes to him. His voice and image were present, courtesy of an excellent film, directed by Daniel Schloss, tastefully mixing historical footage with re-enactments that flash through his life: the boyhood tap dancing, the pathbreaking with George Balanchine and New York City Ballet in the 1950s and ’60s, the fateful decision to start a ballet school and company. It captures his immense charisma: how he could “expect too much” and expand the possible.
Some of what came after was suggested at the gala, in what Virginia Johnson, Dance Theater of Harlem’s artistic director, called a trip down memory lane. These were excerpts from company triumphs: a solo from Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957), solos from John Taras’s “Firebird” (1982), part of a pas de deux from “Creole Giselle” (1984).
Thirty years ago, during the company’s 20th anniversary season, those ballets were danced in full. The current excerpts were a mark of more recent hard times. But, despite slips and imperfections, they were performed with care and pluck. You could imagine them as teasers for more revivals like that of Geoffrey Holder’s “Dougla” (1974), the theatrically vivid Trinidad-meets-Broadway pageant that the company reconstructed last year and used as a surefire finale for every program this season.
The Friday and Saturday programs included a new revival: a version of Mitchell’s 1971 “Tones” that he started reimagining before his death. “Tones II” is a relic and a revelation of the early years. From the first dissonance of the score by Tania León (the company’s former musical director, who, amazingly, also composed the vastly different “Dougla”), this ballet is stark modernism in the midcentury style of Balanchine. The borrowings from Balanchine are so thick as to become pastiche, but what matters is how “Tones II” preserves Mitchell’s initial vision: a City Ballet of black and brown bodies, uncompromisingly modern against a backdrop of stars.
That vision subsequently broadened to include “Dougla” and “Creole Giselle” and (also on the City Center programs) the pas de deux that Mitchell made to “The Greatest Love of All” in 1977, the year that anthem of self-love came out. That larger mix, Balanchine with a Harlem twist, is the tradition that Robert Garland, the troupe’s longtime resident choreographer, takes up in his new “Nyman String Quartet No. 2.”
Titling the dance after its score is a nod to Balanchine, as are understated allusions to the opening and closing of “Agon.” But “Nyman” isn’t Balanchine pastiche. As in his signature 1999 work “Return,” set to funk and soul tracks, Mr. Garland isn’t content with heightening the aspects of rhythm and line that Balanchine took from black dance; he wants to juxtapose ballet against black vernacular motion, Balanchine against James Brown.
Compared with Mr. Garland’s ballet steps, though, his boogieing ones are too perfunctory. The Harlem dancers are too stiff to pull off true casual cool, so the vernacular side looks amateur, a break from dancing rather than a mode equal to ballet. Exacerbating this problem is the score, derivative minimalism that gives this sensitively musical choreographer no help.
Still, Mr. Garland shows off the company’s ever-improving leading man, Da’Von Doane. An Arthur Mitchell figure, Mr. Doane raises his fist, black-power-style, as John Wesley Carlos did at the Olympics the same year Mitchell had his idea. And at the end of “Nyman,” the cast turns away, as at the end of “Agon,” but they raise fingers skyward.
They might be pointing to Mitchell, somewhere in the stars: People need someone to look up to. Or maybe they’re just being aspirational, finding strength in love. Either way, onward and upward is the right idea.