The Plain Dealer | January 24, 2017
Dance Theatre of Harlem makes welcome and superb return on DanceCleveland series (review)
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Since returning from an 8-year hiatus in 2012, Dance Theatre of Harlem, now under the artistic direction of founding company member and former star Virginia Johnson, has steadily begun to reclaim its former glory as a premiere American dance company. It's sold-out performances at Playhouse Square's Saturday attested to the public's thirst to once again see the company in action.
Co-presented by DANCECleveland and Cuyahoga Community College, the 3 p.m. matinee program opened with Cleveland dance icon Dianne McIntrye's ballet "Change" (2016). On a day when thousands of women in Cleveland and millions across the globe marched for the protection of their rights and against the negative rhetoric and demonization of diverse communities espoused during the recent election cycle, McIntrye's all-female trio exploring the changes that African-American women have experienced throughout history couldn't have been timelier.
The first piece McIntyre has choreographed for dancers on pointe, "Change," set to original music by Eli Fountain and traditional spirituals, evoked the spirit of African-American activists like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
The ballet began with the dongs of a bell that resonated throughout the theater as a single female dancer tentatively moved out onto the stage, head lowered with hands outstretched in front of her as if searching for a path forward. She was soon joined by the ballet's other two dancers who did the same.
McIntyre's gestural choreography was abstract yet meaningful. Simple, yet elegant in the ease in which it flowed from the trio of Chyrstyn Fentroy, Ingrid Silva and Stephanie Williams. The long and lean Fentroy was particularly impressive, encapsulating the fragile beauty and grace of movement to a melancholy song about laying down a heavy load, and then switching gears later in the ballet to become a fierce and defiant figure vocalizing guttural shouts while dancing a solo to African drum music.
Reflective of those McIntyre referred to in the program notes as past "warriors for change," her ballet was also mindful of the ongoing struggle women, especially those of color, still face today.
After choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie's "Equilibrium (Brotherhood)" (2016), a brief men's trio celebrating male camaraderie and solidarity, the program settled in for DTH alum Francesca Harper's lengthy "System" (2016).
Danced to dramatic and driving music by John Adams, Harper's contemporary ballet for five men and three women was a constant stream of intermixed solos, duets and trios with dancers coming and going from the stage with regular frequency. Abstract but with an emotional undercurrent, the talented group of dancers showed off their adroit skills in Harper's chaotic, intriguing choreography.
Amidst Harper's torrent of jumps, turns, and partnered movement, much of which appeared to be the dancers proving their skill, every so often the dancers clustered in a group to stare out into the audience with looks of fear and apprehension, yet still drawn to whatever it was they were seeing.
As a showcase of DTH's young dancers' skills, "System" delivered. On the whole, however, the ballet at length tended to tread over similar ground.
The program concluded on a high note with choreographer Robert Garland's audience-pleasing "Return" (1999). Set to a suite of songs from James Brown and Aretha Franklin, the funky and joyful piece was just what the doctor ordered to send toes tapping and spirits rising.
Dancing to James Brown's "Mother Popcorn," Silva opened the work in choreography that sent her backfield in motion and that was the movement equivalent of a smile. Joined by the rest of the company including a show-stealing performance by dancer Francis Lawrence who emulated some of Brown's signature moves, the work blended neoclassical ballet with urban sensibilities sending waves of recognition and appreciation across the faces of audience members with the introduction of each classic song contained in it.
Of the work's many highlights, the performances of Fentroy and Jorge Andres Villarini dancing to Franklin's "Call Me" and Lawrence and the company letting loose in a "Soul Train" line dance to Brown's "Superbad" stood out.
Superbly-crafted and wonderfully danced, "Return" elicited a standing ovation, capping a successful return of Dance Theatre of Harlem to Cleveland.