Fall River Legend – Troy Game – The Beloved – John Henry
Choreography by: Agnes de Mille, Lester Horton, Arthur Mitchell, Robert North
The Dance Theatre of Harlem, Virginia Johnson (Lizzie), Lorraine Graves, Hugues Magen, Joselli Audain, Cassandra Phifer, Hugues Magen, Eddie J. Shellman, Yvonne Hall, Ronald Perry, Leon Bibb (lead dancers), Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra and chorus, Danish Radio Concert Orchestra, David Lamarche, Markus Lethinen (Conductors)
Arthaus Musik Ref. #: 100175
Sound Format: PCM stereo – Picture format: 4:3 – Region code: 0 – Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, and Greek
Four modern ballet classics from 20 years ago are included in the re-issued Dance Theater of Harlem retrospective filmed 20 years ago. The disc comes as the company is re-emerging from a five year performance hiatus that ended in 2009 and a reminder of what a vital voice DTH is to contemporary dance. Founded by the great Arthur Mitchell, who was the first African American ballet star of New York City Ballet, dancing for George Balanchine in such era defining works as Agon and Four Temperaments.
DTH is entering a new era under the direction of former DTH principal dancer Virginia Johnson (who also was editor of Pointe Magazine for several year). Johnson, in fact, dances the title role of Lizzy Borden in Agnes De Mille’s Fall River Legend, the opening ballet in the collection.
Scored to music by Morton Gould, Legend was first danced by American Ballet Theater in 1948 and is vintage de Mille, and by now, a brittle museum piece. Lizzie in pointe shoes and bloody dress is American goth campy especially as it is packed with De Mille’s literalness and symbolism. So it is overwrought even though it is danced with conviction by DTH. Johnson, is electric as Lizzy devolving into violent madness.
More anemic on the collection is the inclusion of The Beloved by choreographer Lester Horton. This short work is interesting , but myopic in relation to Horton’s expansive repertoire as an architect of African American contemporary ballet. A melodrama about a pastor who accuses his wife’s infidelity and beats her to death with a bible.
Horton is a towering figure in African American dance and his technique at the core of DTH’s aesthetic, is by now more of a studio acting exercise than relevant dance theater. However musty, the piece is danced powerfully by Cassandra Phifer and Hugues Magen and their intro commentary about playing these difficult parts, fascinating.
Holding up big time is Troy Game an all male Greco-Roman-soldier dance by choreographer Robert North that is packed with musicality, wit and presciently using idioms of martial arts dance from capoeira and aikido in a fluid brew to display DTH’s spectacular athleticism.
North’s introduces the piece and describes its development. It makes fun of macho aesthetic, from beefcake Greco-Roman posing to pure gymnast power moves in motion just keeps playing off its own template and doesn’t run out of steam. The work has so much dazzle it was expanded from 6 dancers to 17.
North doesn’t dance around inherent homoeroticism, but even though it makes these editorial points, it is really just fun to watch. It also a propulsive score, from exoticism that evoke the ancient Greece to Afro-Caribbean rhythms by Bob Downes fuels the narrative and the wry classicism.
And Mitchell’s own choreography in John Henry an American tale of man vs. machine, is an affirmative, joyous narrative. He wanted to use folkloric dances with theatricality and this work still looks great Edie J. Shellman and Yvonne Hall are the dynamic leads. The work folk song template by Milton Rosenstock and sung by the brilliant baritone Leon Bibb. Mitchell’s wonder folk dance expressions from promenades to juke joint dirty dancing is joyous and authentic, meanwhile jetes, grand pirouettes and fight choreography display DTH’s sumptuous classical technique.
The ballets are well filmed by Thomas Grimm, even though the video stock is hazy by today’s hi-def standards.