WASHINGTON -- Michael Smuin's cinematic, Emmy-winning ballet, "A Song for a Dead Warrior," was the highlight of Dance Theatre of Harlem's opening performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night.
Oddly placed as centerpiece between George Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante" and Alvin Ailey's "The River," Mr. Smuin's ballet received a standing ovation from the crowd, impressed with the strong, evocative dancing of Luis Dominguez and Tai Jimenez, and Mr. Smuin's poignant and violent portrayal of the plight of American Indians.
Set in seven sections that delineate the dancers' thwarted love, it is the dehumanizing treatment of the protagonists by badge-wearing, gun-toting lawmen that is the real meat of this work. The brutal treatment of the heroine by "The Law" is as disturbing as watching the Rodney King tape or seeing the L.A. riots.
All of the dancing takes place behind a scrim on which black and white photographs of chiefs, warriors, forests, skies and pictures ofreservation life create an ever-shifting, misty tapestry.
These images work in tandem with the score by Charles Fox, which is underlined by Indian singers and drummers.
Mr. Dominguez and Ms. Jimenez were brilliant as the unfortunate couple. While Mr. Dominguez impressed us with his skyrocket leaps and crisp technique, he also possesses a dramatic spirit that draws our sympathy. Ms. Jimenez, as the young woman violated by police, tempered her performance with fine sense of wounded innocence and resignation. Lowell Smith, as the chief of police, was sufficiently menacing to warrant boos.
Yet Mr. Smuin balances the violence with remarkable beauty in scene design and choreography. The prologue, "Birth," and the section "Vision" are as uplifting as the other sections are terrifying.
DTH opened with "Allegro Brillante," an abstract work featuring Judy Tyrus and Augustus Van Heerden set to music by Tchaikovsky. However, it wasn't until the last third of the piece that the couple sparked into dancing worthy of DTH and Mr. Balanchine.