Fresno welcomed the reborn Dance Theatre of Harlem main company back with gusto Sunday night to the Saroyan Theatre. The famous ensemble has visited the city five times starting in 1989. When it had to shut down in 2004 for economic reasons, the brand was continued with its “second company,” a training troupe for younger dancers. (That group visited Fresno in 2010.) The re-formed main company made its debut just a few weeks ago in Louisville, Ky.
The challenges of kicking off a new company — even one with such a storied tradition — are numerous, and it was probably too much to expect an early performance such as this to brim with the confidence and unified artistic vision that one would hope from a world-class ensemble. That said, I was ambivalent about Sunday’s performance.
Only when the company took the stage in its fourth and final piece, Donald Byrd’s explosive “Contested Space” (pictured above), did the evening feel riveting. Set to the jarring music of Amon Tobin, this “hip exploration of contemporary male/female relationships,” as the program put it, unfolded with a smoldering, mechanized, aggressive sensibility.
In this breathtaking piece, limbs seemed to be transformed into rigid, percussive strokes, with the arms and legs of the 10 company members becoming angled implements. Often those limbs were stretched far past what you’d expect when it comes to the limits of the human body. At one point, one of the female dancers was held by her partner sideways as she stretched her legs apart into a 180-degree vertical position — as if she were doing the splits with one foot pointing straight up and the other straight down — and was then spun around as if she were a whirring cog in a machine.
The opening piece, Robert Garland’s “Gloria” — created for the re-launch of the company by its resident choreographer — was set to music by Poulenc. It boasted fine technique from the dancers but not always consistency, and the spirit of the piece seemed to sag about halfway through. The cumulative impact of six movements trended more toward monotony than inspiration. Alvin Ailey’s 1972 classic “The Lark Ascending,” the second piece, had more presence, and at times boasted a just-bloomed flower’s sense of vitality, but it still trailed toward listlessness. The evening’s third offering, the classic “Black Swan” pas de deux (featuring Michaela DePrince and Samuel Wilson), seemed awkwardly juxtaposed in the program. DePrince and Wilson are tremendously talented dancers, but their individual moments didn’t build into the experience of grace and delicacy I was expecting in such a signature piece.
Thank goodness, however, for “Contested Space.” It was a tremendous way to end an evening. As the newly reformed company works out the kinks and settles into its identity, I’m sure the Dance Theatre of Harlem will become a more confident powerhouse.