The Spirit of Harlem Shines in Portland

White Bird Brings The Wonder Of New York To Portland With Dance Theatre Of Harlem

Dance Theatre of Harlem has not been back to Portland to perform for thirty years. The excitement for their return last night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland was palpable. The line before the show outside extended a little longer than I’ve seen at the theater before, and the introduction by Walter Jaffe and Paul King, co-founders of White Bird, which presented the show, exuded all the undisguised giddy anticipation of knowing, before the performance even gets underway, that it will prove to be worth the wait.

Dance Harlem Dance Theatre hails from New York City and was originated in 1969. The dance onstage, the refined and exquisite motions of ballet spiced with the frisky and suave touches of contemporary styles, like slow hip rolls and fun doo-wop like arm swings, ranging the vast spectrum of emotion and experience from joy to sorrow, communicated all the wonder and specialness of that great city.

New York was on stage. The collection of bodies, of all different colors, the deepest black to pale, translucent white under blond hair, all glowed with radiance in the stage lighting. There was simplicity to the choreography, the lighting and backdrops and it made me think of a New York distilled; not as a huge, busy, intimidating metropolis but as an accumulation of neighborhoods, resilient and intimate like small towns and of the relationships playing out everyday on those streets where time seems to stretch both ways.

There is a reverence for history in New York, a steadfast commitment to keeping intact the foundations and identities of cultures, along with an equally tenacious rush and appetite for the new, the innovative. It is classic and chic, black and white and saturated in color. It wears leather jackets and tweed blazers, eats pizza on the street and gourmet sushi in high-rise glass-walled restaurants. The DTH was a perfect embodiment of all this, of classic and modern, of raw and enlightened, of all the wonderful transparency and mystery inherent in that city.

Dance Theatre of Harlem by Rachel Neville
Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Rachel Neville

“New Bach” opened the show and was three separate pieces set to the emotionally unbound violins of Johann Sebastian Bach. The backdrop screen was lit red for the first piece, then blue for the second, and as if blending together, a purplish-pink lit the third. This set the mood perfectly as the movements and music aligned with the evocative colors. The first piece was a joyful and energetic dance mostly revolving around two lead dancers. They moved together as if they were the vocals for the music and the rest of the company danced around them, as if conducting the strokes of the violins with their sharp and fine movements.

Against the blue screen, the violin chords grew somber and extended further, longingly as the choreography emphasized a constant rotation of bodies as the ballerinas performed arabesques and graceful strong steps to cross the stage in swift lines, passing through the light, on and off stage. This flow was inexplicably romantic and sad, but beautiful to watch for how your eye didn’t settle on one dancer or search for a plot, but instead reveled in the impermanence of the sight itself.

At the beginning of “In The Mirror Of Her Mind,” Ashley Murphy is laying in the center of the stage with a triangle of men looking over her. Da’Von Doane, Samuel Wilson, and Anthony Savoy never dance together; rather, they take turns turning, lifting and embracing the bright red clad Murphy. I didn’t see it as a love triangle necessarily. Her rapport with each man is different; it’s not like she can’t decide, she just feels differently about each and looks for each one to give her something distinct, like the many types of relationships we all have in our lives which can serve different purposes.

There are a few relationships here: guardian, lover, teacher, and friend. She embraces two of the men with more resistance, almost straining in their arms but nonetheless beautifully curving to fit the protection or guidance they are offering. With one of the dancers she gives herself completely – in a move that evoked a collective, softly awe-loaded sigh from the audience, she leaps on him, embracing and adhering to him in an impressively athletic move, on both dancers’ parts. He supports her with his neck and shoulders alone, as sturdy as a statue he stands as she lets her upper body hang the length of his back like a cloak, as if in him, she has found a release.

I found this to be the most captivating performance of the night. The emotion swells with the operatic vocals of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 and the audience watches at Murphy moves from man to man, seemingly never dancing unsupported physically and contrary to her beginning position, it’s as if her feet rarely touch the ground until the end where she ends up again, laying in the spotlight at center stage. But she is alone and the men’s backs turn and leave her, and I sense the tension and tragedy of this conclusion to be that she wanted all three men to combine and become one, to have everything she desires and needs combined to mirror that of her singular self.

Odes to Love and Loss
Odes to Love and Loss. Photo by Rachel Neville

The athleticism and contemporary edge of the DTH comes through in “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss.” Visually, black and white dominate the scene. All the dancers are clad in white moving in bright white spotlights to the singular rings of a church bell. The choreography focuses on reflection and stillness, as the ballerinas shift from shared spotlights to separate ones, engaging in crouched plies, with their feet far apart, their weight resting on their toes in the en pointe position, as if meditating in the space and light.

Fast movements come in the scattering and breaking away from the circle, hurriedly dispersing off stage and then returning again to join hands in the ring. Something about the lighting makes me think of this as an explosion of the sun, and the dancers like magnificent stars disbursing to dot the night sky.

“Vessels” is the closing piece and serves as a great celebration of the DTH. It is an exuberant accumulation of the talent and expressive range that these ballerinas thoroughly demonstrate through the choreography of Virginia Johnson. There is both restoration and reinvention here, like a constantly changing city and the tragedy, connections and achievements happening within it.

Dance Theatre of Harlem runs again tonight, April 22nd, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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