Harlem dance deserves an audience

November 03, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An inexperienced producer, poor publicity and outrageous ticket prices ($30-$47.50) virtually guaranteed that Dance Theater of Harlem would play to small houses this weekend at the Morris Mechanic Theatre. On Friday, half the seats were empty.

What a shame! DTH is such a fine company, and this is how Baltimore welcomed it back after an absence of 10 years.

Its repertory has become far more sophisticated since the last time it played here, and its program, while suitable for the stage and technical limitations of the Mechanic, was not exactly the kind that plays to the gallery.

"Sasanka," by the 25-year-old South African choreographer Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe, was created for the Kennedy Center's African Odyssey Project last season. It's as far removed from the bold costumes and fervent rhythms of Les Guirivoires or the National Ballet of Senegal as it can be.

Mantsoe used a spare score by Ondekoza and Synergy -- a breathy flute, mysterious percussion -- for his Spartan, almost ascetic meditation on African dance, which reduces imagery of the African plains -- its climate, animals and vegetation -- to abstract terms and a compressed vocabulary.

Then there was the even more spare "Adrian (Angel on Earth)," a new work by the black Barbadian choreographer John Alleyne, 37, who directs Ballet British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. This is the conclusion of a trilogy in which Alleyne confronts the terrible toll taken by AIDS on the community of dancers.

In a telephone interview last week, Alleyne said the piece freeze-frames the transitional moment of reincarnation. He calls it hopeful, inspired; but to me it's unbearably sad. From the title, Adrian's journey has ended in death, and he has become an observer, unable to join two couples who explore the newness of love. At times, he enters their space, and they seem aware of a presence, though they can't see him, but the effect is evanescent, if troubling.

In a beautiful series of male pas de deux, Adrian (Cedric Rouse) remembers -- perhaps re-creates -- the relationships of his earthly life. But the sunset lighting (by Kevin Connaughton), the somber, blood-hued backdrop (by Nancy Bryant) and the way the costumes (also by Bryant) are dyed, fading softly into twilight at the hems and sleeves, signal that Adrian is already dissolving into memory, his jubilant reality less tangible with every passing breath.

The music was dismal. Canadian composer Timothy Sullivan seems to fancy himself the Philip Glass of his country, and his score, "Two Pianos," went on tunelessly for about 30 years.

With "The Firebird," in the 1982 version choreographed by John Taras and given tropical rain-forest scenery by Geoffrey Holder, we were in familiar DTH territory.

This ballet is long on pageantry and short on dance, except for the firebird. The sensational Kellye A. Saunders, in a brilliant red costume made more brilliant by a red spotlight, bourree'd across the stage with a hummingbird's speed and shimmer -- a worthy successor to Stephanie Dabney, who created the role.

The company features some other lovely dancers: the charming and coltish Alicia Graf (from right here in Columbia); a sumptuous lyric ballerina, Stephanie Powell; and Duncan Cooper, whom I remember from San Francisco Ballet, now filled out and matured into an elegant partner.

Proceeds from the performances were to benefit the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program of Baltimore and other youth agencies. But no one benefits if you can't get an audience through the door.

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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