The lights come up slowly, duskily, and in the shadowy details it’s hard to tell at first exactly what it is we’re seeing. One person? Two? Soon it becomes apparent it’s a man and a woman dressed in skin-tight lycra. The front of her costume is red and the back a pure black; the color scheme is opposite for the man. Bathed in the spotlight, the couple intertwines in a variety of nimble poses — including one in which the woman quivers on all fours on pointe — and as the red and black colors shift with their moves, it almost looks like some extravagant rainforest insect dancing in the sun.
This was choreographer Peter Pucci’s “Episode,” and it was one of the highlights of Friday’s performance at the Saroyan Theatre of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble.
The Dance Theater of Harlem has had some tough times lately. The group of dancers that graced the Saroyan isn’t even the “first” company, which had to be disbanded in 2004 because of financial difficulties. The Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, or “second” company, which performed here in Fresno, is akin to the second companies of other well-known dance institutions such as Ailey II. In other words, the second company is considered more along the lines of “dancers-in-training” — the farm team from which the more prestigious first company draws its best dancers.
Even with those caveats, however, it was pretty amazing what this “second” company was able to accomplish. (The good news is that plans are under way to get the first company up and running again, perhaps by 2013.) The caliber of dancers in DTOH Ensemble is probably higher than in Ailey II, I’d guess, simply because it can hold on to dancers who’d otherwise move up to the first company. Though the Friday performance lacked a precision in technique and overall fluidity that marks great ballet companies, the choreography was outstanding and the esprit de corps impressive.
The company opted for an informal, “interactive” concert experience. The format was hit and miss. Director Keith Saunders, who spoke directly to the audience, said he wanted to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what it takes to put together a dance concert. The opening routine featured dancers warming up in rehearsal clothes. From there, Saunders had a few words to say about each of the pieces. He also introduced some of the dancers.
While I enjoyed hearing what Saunders had to say — and it was nice putting names with the dancers — sometimes the low-key informality of the presentation detracted from the intensity of the performance. There’s a reason why production designers go to so much trouble creating a heightened visual experience for audiences, from dramatic lighting to vivid costumes, and continually stepping out of that space just seemed to break the mood. (I did enjoy when Saunders brought three men up on stage to interact with the ballerinas, however. Funny stuff.)
The only notable flat part of the program was a piano solo by the company’s Vadim Rubinsky, who tromped on stage at the end of the first act to pound out a jumbled, clangy original composition. It was an odd occurrence that further that dissipated the creative spell.
Thank goodness the second act concentrated on dance. By the time the company closed the evening with Robert Garland’s “Mother Popcorn” set to the music of James Brown, the DTOH Ensemble had put the swivel in their hips. Now that’s something to scream about.