March 23, 2021
Beer, Bubbles & Ballet is Dance Theatre of Harlem’s showcase for new works choreographed and performed by its own company artists. This year’s virtual event, titled A Rose in Harlem and hosted by dancers Crystal Serrano and Christopher Charles McDaniel, also acted as a fundraiser for the DTH Forward Fund, which is supporting the company, its artists, staff and school during the present crisis.
The four new choreographies and one existing solo made for a varied and entertaining show. Even in the most classical of companies, such evenings tend to veer towards the contemporary, so how satisfying it was to see everyone not only not straying away from classical technique but celebrating it and using it so effectively to communicate.
Spectre by Daphne Lee hints of Spectre de la Rose but with a twist at the end. Yinet Fernandez slumbers on a piano stool, red roses scattered around, but awakens to find Sanford Placide over her. Spirit or in her dream is unclear, but they dance together joyfully with some fine quick allegro. But when he leads her back to the stool, she waves a rose under his nose as if casting a spell, and now it’s he that sleeps.
A programme note explains that, once upon a time, in Haiti, cassette recordings were often sent instead of letters. Mementos by Placide features Amanda Smith reminiscing about a tape she had sent to her lover about their relationship and detailing their future plans, but which was never received. By the time it arrived, he had passed away. Filmed outdoors and in atmospheric black and white, the opening and closing shots of the sky suggest the vastness of distance. The most contemporary of the works, Smith dances fluidly and expressively, her whole body speaking. Her sense of loss, of what might have been is there for all to see. Beautiful.
Vibin’ Vivaldi by McDaniel does just that. It’s fun and upbeat; classical ballet with a huge smile on its face. The bright choreography shows dancers Stephanie Rae Williams and Anthony Santos at their best as they surf the music. There’s time for the odd wink too, not least a cheeky bum bump. And for once, thanks to the dancers wearing transparent face masks, whole faces were visible. It made me wonder why isn’t this done more often. It allows so much more to be communicated.
The one excerpt from an existing work danced, the ‘Soul of the Hood’ solo from Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Harlem on My Mind, was presented as a tribute to American actress and fashion model Cicely Tyson, who died recently aged 97, and who was known for her portrayal of strong African-American women. In her introduction, DTH artistic director Virgina Johnson notes how she, “showed what it is possible for a black woman to do in the world.”
Set to Christ Botti’s elegiac rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine’, the choreography is largely thoughtful, although there are moments of joy too, visualised in bright skipping steps. Dancer Daphne Lee captures the mood perfectly. Emotionally invested in the solo, her phrasing was elegant as she exuded a sense of calm.
Santos freely admits that “I am a quirky choreographer with modern ideas and a weakness for visual concepts.” If his Algido (a Portuguese word that means ‘the one in control’), the longest of the new pieces, is anything to go by, he’s got it in one
It opens to the unusual sight of three bare-chested men in black skirts and elbow-length black gloves against a metallic gold curtain. They are later joined by four women, also in black, although a splash of colour comes from their gloves. Back to masks for a second, and it’s noticeable how the black masks worn here become part of the costume, making them much less noticeable.
There’s plenty of colour in the choreography too. Created to a cocktail of music by Stanislavsky, M Hannawah, The Moombahton and AK Beats, it’s quirky and off beat, but also full of energy. It’s about letting go while not forgetting what we have: making use of strong classical technique but simultaneously taking everyone, perhaps audiences as well as dancers, a little outside their comfort zone. The ensemble sections and solos are all great fun. Quite who is ‘in control’ is unclear. Is it the woman in a large jewelled necklace who appears early in the film, but not thereafter. Or perhaps it’s as simple as it being the choreographer. To be honest, I’m not sure it matters.