REVIEW: Dance Theatre of Harlem with Attacca Quartet at Sidney Harman Hall

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

REVIEW: Dance Theatre of Harlem with Attacca Quartet presented by Washington Performing Arts and CityDance

Sidney Harman Hall
Friday, October 14th, 2016, 8pm

by Rachel Turner

Showcasing immense control, expressive arms, and a mix of well-executed ballet technique, modern, and even a little bit of groove à la James Brown, Dance Theatre of Harlem presented a program of three works at Sidney Harman Hall on Friday, October 14th.

I was excited to see Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven and Robert Garland’s Return at a closer distance after seeing these works from the balcony of the vast Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University in 2015. Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven was actually a last minute addition to the program after a dancer injury precluded the originally scheduled Divertimento and When Love from being performed, and it did not disappoint.

The curtain rises, and we see a single empty spotlight. Immediately, the cast of six dancers rushes out from the wings and joins hands. To the sounds of church bells in Arvo Pärt’s haunting Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, the dancers contort to create sculptural shapes in their circle. The dancers part ways, leaving two alone for the first of many duets.

Ingrid Silva performs impressive fouetté turns before a series of thrilling catch-lifts in which she throws herself with total trust into the air and is caught in the nick of time by her partner. All the female dancers in this piece wear pointe shoes, yet move through them with such ease and control that the shoes seem like a part of their bodies. Truly, these dancers are so strong and the movements through the feet so supple, I could almost be convinced that they balanced and spun on their toes with pure muscular effort.

In the next duet, the female dancer barely touches her partner, yet the effects on his movement are amplified as he reacts to her. The dancers move sharply, at times together and at times in sequence, in a display of robotic tenderness. Throughout this piece, the faces of the dancers are unaffected, yet their bodies exude intense feelings of grief, sadness, and loss.

The two other female dancers join the pair on stage; when the three women first start to move together, a breath cue given by one of the trio can be heard from my seat in the audience. Another breath cue in this section, as well as a few others later in the piece, become a bit of a distraction to me. They break the trance that this silky and emotionally charged movement puts me in.

After a few more dancing interludes, the circle from the beginning repeats in silence, yet the iconic church bells from before echo in my head. The dancers are perfectly synchronized and perfectly silent; the effect is haunting. Like before, the dancers scatter, this time leaving Da’Von Duane, who performs an exquisite solo.

One of my favorite sections of the piece comes next: a duet between two male dancers, Choong Hoon Lee and Dylan Santos. First we can only see one dancer; his partner is behind him, only revealing reaching hands grabbing and manipulating. They create an assortment of sculptural moments, displaying both strength and sadness. A lasting image for me is when the two slowly sink into a side-split position in perfect unison.

As the men hit their final pose, three women unexpectedly emerge from the center of the back of the stage. The three women, Chrystyn Fentroy, Ingrid Silva, and Alison Stroming, dance in perfect unison, performing balletic footwork paired with grasping gestural hands. Again, a few breath cues among this group momentarily take me out of the moment.

Lee and Santos are left alone again, and this sections ends with the two walking away from us into the darkness of the stage. Just before they disappear, one of the men slips away, as if he was just a figment of his partner’s imagination.

In the next section of the piece, the dancers begin upstage of the large center spotlight. One at a time, they come to the center and perform solos before retreating to one of the smaller spots around the center. The solos are impressively technical, and some dancers even show off some acrobatic skills.

At this point, I start to put together what is so captivating and remarkable about the movement of the dancers. At various points the dancers freeze on a dime, and then they somehow continue into the next movement without any momentum to help them. Their dancing is a show of pure strength and control.

The last female soloist, Chrystyn Fentroy, is most memorable. After a series of slowly controlled    passé relevés and leg extensions, she rises to her toes in a long vertical line with her arms over her head. As her shoulders and hips break side to side, we hear her breath accompany the movement. These audible breaths are in contrast to the haunting silence of the dancers’ motions previously; while there is music, we have rarely heard any audible evidence of the dancers, almost as if someone muted a video of dancing and then played music on top of it.

As Fentroy finishes a series of exquisite extensions to the front that fall into lunges, the other dancers join her in the center, before the whole group exits, leaving the empty center spot on the stage.

After a few more solos and duets, Da’Von Duane is left alone and performs a sequence of quick turns with intricate, sharp arms. He is joined by Santos and Lee, in sequence, and they perform the steps together. The men are slightly out-of-sync, something that is fairly noticeable with the stark setting and sharpness and quickness of the gestures.

Two more duets occur, the second ending with Silva, supported by Santos, in counterbalance and reaching her leg to an extension that reaches but doesn’t quite get to its endpoint; it is a beautiful struggle. The other dancers return for one last reprise of the opening circular formation before scattering to their individual spots. They lower their heads in unison, and as the curtain lowers, we see them each slowly walking around their spot.

This piece, created by Ulysses Dove during a period of loss in his life, was performed excellently, especially considering that it was a last-minute addition to the program, and created a landscape of sadness without relying on facial expressions or explicit gestures to portray the emotions. Dove managed to arrange technical and acrobatic feats paired with expressive arms in a way that depicted true feelings of loss.

The next piece on the program, System, a 2016 premiere choreographed by former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer Francesca Harper, was the most exciting work of the evening. It was danced to the music of John Adams, performed live by the Attacca Quartet, and featured sprightly jumps, explosive leaps, manipulative partnering, and continuous swirls of movement.

The dance begins with the cast of eight dancers walking on stage in silence to face the audience in a straight line. They all wear various black outfits – some in sports bras and spandex shorts, some with glittery sleeves or tops, some in mesh. The costumes were odd at first glance, but I came to enjoy the quirkiness.

The piece is continuously in motion. Groups of dancers constantly emerge and switch, and when the dancers are in stillness, the music keeps the flow going. Often the music and dancing are in contrast: the dancers move slowly as the music rushes along.

This contrast was much more intriguing to watch than if the dance had always gone right with the music. Moments of stillness were much more dramatic when paired in contrast with quick music; sections of fluid movement stood out more when paired with staccato sounds.

The formations swirl as the dancers perform technical jumps mixed in with modern work. Frequently, Harper juxtaposes ballet steps with similar movements from modern vernacular and has dancers or groups perform them at the same time.

A quote from dancer Jorge Andrés Villarini in the program indicates that this is a piece about the journeys of migrants: “We are the migrants, we are the refugees, we are the displaced. These are our stories.” Throughout the piece, the dancers form a clump and stand in stillness, staring at the us. Bright light washes out their faces, and their shadows are tall behind them on the back wall. They look like a group of criminals caught in a searchlight; this is perhaps representative of how migrants are oft treated like criminals in our country.

These repeated ‘check in’ moments seem to show the journey they are taking. In the first clump moment, the dancers are scared and frozen, at times scurrying away from us trying to hide behind each other, while in later moments they become curious and bolder in their energy toward the audience.

Another theme in this piece is manipulation and dragging – this perhaps alluded to the lack of control migrants can have when fleeing horrific circumstances. The female dancers are lifted through the air by men and then dragged backwards in a rush.

There are also three partnering sections during which a dancer doing extensions was manipulated by a group of other dancers; these moments are reminiscent of George Balanchine’s Rubies.

A story is told through the differences in the repetitions of this manipulative partnering. The first and third occurrences featured Chrystyn Fentroy. The first time, she is pulled around by her male partners, but later in the piece, she seems to have developed more control and, at times, even appears to lead the men where she wants to go. This seemed to indicate a progression in the journey the piece told and a taking back of control of one’s own fate.

While the dancers appear to make progress in their emotional journey – becoming less fearful and taking more control – other parts of the piece indicate the difficulty and slow progress in the journey of a migrant. During one section, the dancers clump in a corner and make their way down a diagonal path, but then return back to their starting point to repeat another path. They are moving ferociously, but not making physical progress in getting anywhere because they keep having to return to the start. This same image came back during a section where dancers would chainée wildly toward the audience, pause and look at us, and then run back, as if they were too afraid to continue.

Fentroy was extremely exciting to watch during this piece. Even during one section where she sat on the ground watching another dancer, Stephanie Rae Williams, move, Fentroy was present and captivating.

Another standout performer was Jorge Andres Villarini. His lanky frame moved in a wondrously awkward manner. At one point early on in the piece, he performed a variety of arm gestures that resulted in his arms becoming tangled around his body like a straightjacket, at which point he collapsed to the floor.

This 29-minute piece flew by in the whirls of formations, dramatic and entrancing moments of stillness, and high-flying shows of technical prowess. This piece was an invigorating contribution to the world of contemporary ballet.

The final piece of the program was Robert Garland’s Return, which was originally choreographed in honor of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 30th anniversary in 1999. Garland sought to highlight the diversity of DTH’s skillset in this piece – a mix of technique and funk. The piece featured twelve dancers in five sections set to music of artists including James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

The technique continued to impress during this piece, but the funk fell a bit flat. After the rushing flow and variety of movements and music in Harper’s System, the simplicity of the music and the continuous tempo of the choreography felt dull, particularly in the opening section, “Mother Popcorn.” The dancers’ plastered smiles did not feel genuine as the four lines of dancers crossed and overlapped in their movement patterns.

In the later sections, more opportunities for interaction and contact between the dancers helped bring them to life a bit more.

The second section, “Baby, Baby, Baby,” started with Stephanie Rae Williams, in silhouette against a dark red backdrop, moving slowly across the stage snaking through her spine. Her partner, Choong Hoon Lee, joins her, and as the lights come up, they move into a tender duet. Two other pairs joined them, and the couples moved about the stage and past each other as they spun and slid.

Ingrid Silva, who had led “Mother Popcorn” earlier on, brought energy in the playfully competitive “I Got the Feelin.’” She starts by challenging and leading on two male dancers around the stage in a series of turns and tricks. In a very Balanchine moment, the dancers execute sharp tendus and echappés in perfect timing with James Brown’s chorus of “baby, baby, baby… baby, baby, baby…” More dancers join the original three on stage, and the cast shows off their quick footwork paired with sharp, funky hand movements.

Alison Stroming is both funny and affectionate in “Call Me.” After a series of poses in a spotlight with various partners, the music begins and Stroming embraces her three male partners in turn as the lyrics of the Aretha Franklin music croon “I love you… and I love you… and I love you.”

After this humorous beginning featuring acrobatics lifts of Stroming by the three men who all were vying for her attention, she seems to choose Villarini. She dances and turns as he adeptly ducks under her legs while she spins (he is quite tall; this is super impressive).

Villarini and Stroming transition into an intimate duet. Other couples join them on stage, each in their own world of loving bliss. The complex partnering was strong, but the simplicity of moments when the couples rocked back and forth in a slow dance was more entrancing.

The final section, “Superbad” brought the show to a rousing end. Da’Von Duane opens this section backed up by four women who shake their hips to the beat as he grooves to the music of James Brown. He weaves through them as he dances, and the five come together to strut down the stage and pose for the audience. Their vibe is casual cool throughout this section.

Next up the men of the company come out one by one for a series of huge jumps; unlike the frequent explosive leaps in System that were part of a story, this moment is pure showing off, and it is fun to watch. The full cast paddles onto stage and form two vertical lines: the edges of a runway.

Each dancer gets a turn to walk down the runway, and we are treated to groovy moves and acrobatics. The dancers are having fun, and it is infectious.

The grand finale of the piece features the men on one side of stage facing away from us and the women on the other side of stage facing us. They go through a series of paddle steps with arms, jazzy pivots, arabesques, and turns. As the full cast spins wildly around in pas de bourée turns and pirouettes, the curtain lowers.

Dance Theatre of Harlem is a highly touted company in the United States, and deservedly so. They showcased technique that rivals powerhouse ballet companies paired with expressiveness and a sense of fun. This program highlighted their huge diversity and versatility – Dancing On the Front Porch of Heaven showed emotional depth and sculptural strength, System offered fresh new choreography addressing a relevant issue and showcased impeccable technique and seamless flow, and Return brought social dances to the stage alongside technical feats. It was a memorable evening of dance from an exciting company.