Showing the human spirit in the darkest of circumstances: Dance Theatre of Harlem in Passage

DTH On Demand, Winter 2021 Virtual Ballet Series
February 6, 2021

Maggie Foyer

Dance Theatre of Harlem was in the second year of its 50th Anniversary Celebration when COVID struck and the company went digital. This offered some consolation in that it gave a worldwide audience the chance to see new creations like Claudia Schreier’s Passage from 2019. The ballet observes a grim milestone, 400 years since the first Africans were brought to the United States as slaves in 1619. It was the start of the Atlantic slave trade that decimated the population of West Africa by roughly 12 million and boosted the economies of Europe and the Americas. The Middle Passage is the name given to the most infamous leg of the journey where the cargo was human.

Dance Theatre of Harlem in Passage by Claudia SchreierPhoto Brian Callan
Dance Theatre of Harlem in Passage by Claudia Schreier
Photo Brian Callan

Schreier and composer, Jessie Montgomery have created an equal partnership of sound and movement. They have found the means, each in their own medium, to draw out the strength of the human spirit even in the most desperate of circumstances. Despite the narrative subtext, the ballet works also as an abstract, with ballast found in the intensity of the performances and meaning evident for those who look for it. The focus is on the dispossessed and the mood of the work is of fortitude and endurance: a tribute to ancestors who fought for hard-won freedom.

The theme of water is evident in the opening scenes as female dancers, supported by the men, soar and dive with dolphin-like glee. The pulse of the waves is echoed in the sweep of arms and drive of torsos and is an intermittent backdrop to the piece. The traditional male-female partnering rachets to a more intense level in the male duets where the relationship is dynamic and the dance language most complex and interesting. Presage lifts contrast with counterbalance of weight and the space between the partners crackles with electricity.

Dance Theatre of Harlem in Passage by Claudia SchreierPhoto Ruben Kappler
Dance Theatre of Harlem in Passage by Claudia Schreier
Photo Ruben Kappler

The music and dance evoke a variety of moods. There are moments when shrill strings expose a frisson of fear compounded by running figures in the semi-darkness, the light catching flashes of the dancers’ white costumes. At other times the work has a spirituality of breathless intensity.  Particularly resonant was the moment as the women are lifted like hung bodies before a brief dimming of the stage at half-time and the soaring lift in the final moment that encapsulates the triumph of the spirit. It’s a work that finds meaning in these strange times of rising darkness balanced by human resilience.

Passage can be watched on DTH’s YouTube channel until February 14, 2021. A conversation with the cast about the creation of the ballet is also available.

Next on DTH On Demand, available from February 14 (UK, 8pm on February 13 in New York) is John Henry, choreographed by DTH Co-founder Arthur Mitchell in 1988. For more details of this and other forthcoming streamings, visit