July 11, 2020
In 1955, Arthur Mitchell made history as the first black principal dancer at New York City Ballet. He would go on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, just a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King and at a time of civil unrest. The company made its official debut two years later at the Guggenheim Museum, to where it returned on September 30, 2019 for Dance Theatre of Harlem at 50 as part of the Guggenheim’s noted Works & Process series.
Tribute was paid to Mitchell by former colleagues and dancers in an accompanying film streamed a couple of days earlier. As led to sum him up on one word, Gayle McKinney Griffith said ‘determined’, while for Donald Williams it was ‘tenacity’. Brenda Garrett Glassman, the first black student at The Royal Ballet School, talked of his formidable presence in the studio. China White remembered how demanding he was and the intense energy he brought into the room.
How appropriate then that the most interesting of the Dance Theatre of Harlem at 50 programme was the concluding Tones II, Mitchell’s 2018 resetting of his 1971 ballet, Tones, which featured on that 1971 Guggenheim debut. It was to be the last time he worked with the company. He passed away just two weeks later.
Set to dissonant music by Tania León, the neo-classical work is athletic and full of challenging precision partnering. Accuracy is needed between couples too, especially in an opening that features five pairs often in unison.
Right from the beginning there are hints of Balanchine’s Black & White series, the pas de deux from Agon in particular. Tones is loaded with intricate and unusual lifts. The women are held horizontally like planks, folded and wrapped around their partner’s head. At the 17-minute ballet’s heart is a stark yet elegant pas de deux, danced here by Crystal Serrano and Dylan Santos
If Tones was interesting choreographically and well-danced, the preceding three of George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments was outstanding. Returning to the repertory for the first time for over ten years, the three couples look totally at home
The white architecture and basic lighting of the Guggenheim rotunda meant everything could be seen with the utmost clarity. In the Melancholic, Yinet Fernandez, partnered by Da‘Von Doane, gave us superb articulation and sharpness in her limbs. Amanda Smith and Anthony Santos fizzed along in the Sangunic allegro with its off-balance partnering and darting jumps. In the third, Phlegmatic, you never felt that Daphne Lee was hitting all those hyperextensions for the sake of it. Rather, it was always a response for Dylan Santos’ super partnering.
The performance opened weakly, however. Robert Garland’s Nyman String Quartet #2 is an odd classical ballet meets jazz (of sorts) affair that never gets close to firing on all cylinders, the repetitive choreography not helped by a strange disconnect from the delicious score.
There are some pleasant if unexciting patterns, a bit of hip swivelling, and a lot of shifting from foot to foot as each of five mean breaks out in turn for a classical solo. Five women follow doing much the same idea. It looked stiff and uncomfortable. A long central solo (Christopher Charles McDaniel) is full of strange angular movement that just highlighted the issues even more. Nyman String Quartet #2 does pick up towards the end but overall I found it decidedly unappealing and a long 22 minutes.
Dance Theater of Harlem continues to put black dancers centre stage. We also shouldn’t forget the company’s impressive community and arts education programmes, and its message of empowerment through ballet and the arts for all.
Returning to that tribute film, Gayle McKinney Griffith said, “Arthur Mitchell was a visionary who proved to the world that people of colour could succeed in the ballet art form. Donald Williams said that “Telling Arthur Mitchell that he couldn’t or shouldn’t do something merely fuelled him to prove you wrong. He personally disproved the myth that black bodies were unsuited to do classical ballet.” That’s something this super DTH on Demand season proves again and again.