Dance Theatre of Harlem entertained from start to finish in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Balamouk."
What’s not to love about Dance Theatre of Harlem?
The company of artists is likable, accomplished and they have a backstory that is inspirational. They were founded by New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell right after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to prove to the world that black dancers not only can do ballet, but can excel in it.
(Anyone who saw the elegant Mitchell dancing in the 1960s already knew that. But many didn't. Unfortunately, the race issue persists today.)
That solid foundation, built by an exceptional artist, propelled the DTH through some very lean years.
Now, celebrating their 50th anniversary and led by former DTH superstar Virginia Johnson, DTH is showing off its chops on the venerable Jacob’s Pillow stage. (The will dance there through Sunday, July 14.)
The 16-member company’s foundation is rooted in George Balanchine, the creative genius who recognized the late Mitchell’s potential. Among the works performed at the Pillow is Balanchine’s swirling “Valse Fantaisie” to Mikhail Glinka’s Valse Fantaisie in B minor. While the neoclassical waltz was lovely, with dancers donning emerald-colored romantic tutus and flowers in their hair, the artists looked the most comfortable and competent in the contemporary works – mainly Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth” and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Balamouk.”
Anyone who has seen “This Bitter Earth” knows that it’s one of Wheeldon’s best pas de deux. The British choreographer has an ability to create a connection between his dancers that is meaningful and in this case melancholy. Dylan Santos with Crystal Serrano grabbed hold of the inherent emotions in this brief ballet. He was exceptional as he met her eye-to-eye with foreheads touching or as he spun her in his arms. He drew out the gravitas of the work.
Serrano, unfortunately, did not take advantage of the richness of its context, at least not at first. But the work was still moving and emotionally raw, thanks to Santos’ sober poise as well as the rich music by Max Richter overlaid with Dinah Washington’s wistful words.
“Balamouk,” while uneven choreographically, showed off the skills of these ambitious and versatile dancers. The colorful work stunned from the moment the curtain rose with the dancers in dim, smoky stage moving like one.
Assembled with solos, duets and daring group dances, “Balamouk" built on the unique music: jazzy/Klezmer sounds Les Yeux Noirs supplemented with the otherworldly pull created by Lisa Gerrard and the lively tones by Rene Aubry. The stylish work, which was under the haze of a worldly vibe, skittered across the stage, entertaining from start to finish.
Some of the transitions were awkward, but the dancers did their best with all that they were given.
The program opened with Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Harlem on My Mind.” Set to jazz standards like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” the dance signaled that DTH was here and setting the stage on fire.