By Ashley Oliver
Bedecked in glistening white leotards, The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) ensemble glided across the stage in York College’s Performing Arts Building last month to help celebrate the college’s 50th anniversary. The fourteen dancers in this revived company presented all the latest neoclassical choreography. The program included New Bach, Adante, When Love, Vessels, Light, Belief, Love, and Abundance.
The company was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, who focused on mentoring young people of color by teaching them how to dance ballet. Mitchell was also the first black dancer to join American Ballet Theatre. After a long hiatus, the company is back with a new artistic director, Virginia Johnson. Now in its fourth season, DTH remains one of the most internationally recognized ballet companies for its diverse cast.
Johnson was also former member of the original ensemble. This year, she said she hopes people recognize the company for its talent and not for being predominately black.
“When the company first started and I danced Firebird, the most alluring thing was a black girl dancing this amazing role amazingly,” said Johnson. “But times have changed. Educated people should know there are black ballerinas, and we do a pretty damn good job at it, too.”
The opening dance, New Bach, included the entire repertoire. Although the choreography adhered to the ballet aesthetic, the intricate steps were danced to a modern beat. Former company member Tristan Grannum said the new dances have themes that everyone can relate to.
“The pas-de-deux tells a love story between distant lovers,” said Grannum. “College students have all been in love. The ones who are in school now, and the ones who graduated 50 years ago. That’s what makes the ballet so great.”
The pas-de-deux Grannum referred to is a dance duet, usually performed by the male and female lead dancers. In Vessels the aesthetic of the symmetry the dancers created was appealing to everyone in the audience. Although the duet was performed by two dancers, Chrystyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence, they combined as one. Hence, the name, Vessels.
The instrumental music used for each piece played an integral part in setting the mood. Unlike much generic ballet music, DTH infused jazz and verbal melodies into the music. For example, the music used for Vessels was composed by Ezio Bosso, who used modern melodies to give the audience an eerie feel.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” said Fentroy. “Sometimes you feel sad, happy, like a mother, like a child. The music is just eccentric and that’s what separates us from other dance companies. Especially the ones that dance ballet.”
While the physique of the dancers adhered to the tone of the choreography, the body language and facial expressions lacked an emotional element. Lindsay Croop’s and Frederick Davis’ long elegant lines were admirable in New Bach, and they each had precise musicality, but they both seemed more focused on execution of the movement than interpretation of the theme.
But Dupah Gobin, Vice President of York College’s Student Government Association, said each dancer had their own personality. Gobin believes that even though some dancers did not connect emotionally with the audience, that is what made the dances interesting.
“Some of them had their own personal touch while dancing,” she said. “Even though the songs helped them, it’s all up to the dancers to connect with the audience. But the the dancers who stood out to me the most were the ones where I felt their presence while they danced. With those dancers, I felt an immediate connection.”