Review: Music Worcester presents Dance Theatre of Harlem at Hanover Theatre
WORCESTER — Friday night at The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in a performance presented by Music Worcester, the Dance Theatre of Harlem enacted a story woven into the very fabric of humanity since it first stood upright and partook of the world. In that story, we felt the pulse of history and its many tragic fibrillations, each threatening to short-circuit the rhythm of our existence into cardiac arrest. For what was on the surface a performance of great skill, determination and self-control was on a deeper level something relevant to our current state of uncertainty: a mirror so refracted that we couldn’t help catching a glimpse of ourselves in at least one of its many shards.
Such concerns might have seemed far beyond the horizon of our appreciation in the opening “Valse Fantaisie.” With classic choreography by George Balanchine and music by Mikhail Glinka, its moves were buoyant yet firmly grounded in tradition. Yet the more it progressed, the more foreboding it became. That the soundtrack was popularly known in its day as Glinka’s “Melancholy Waltz” seemed fitting, for behind its lively mask brooded a finite, mortal heart. Crystal Serrano and Dylan Santos were the piece’s Edenic proto-couple, whose gradual fall from grace left echoes in the figures around them. Thus, the Harlem company made the stage its own, treating leitmotifs of repeated movements as a corporeal language without words. Like something out of time, every moment of exquisite contact gazed upon itself in a watery surface.
Water was indeed a red thread throughout the evening. The program’s second piece, “Change,” opened with the sound of Tibetan prayer bowls as the trio of Amanda Smith, Alicia Mae Holloway and Stephanie Rae Williams appeared like souls swimming through hardship. Choreographed by Dianne McIntyre and premiered in 2016, this piece was as important aurally as it was visually.
Leavened by the ever-potent yeast of two African American spirituals — “I know my robe’s going to fit me well” and “Don’t you let nobody turn you ‘roun’ ” — as sung by the Spelman College Glee Club, and split to feed a multitude by the beat of Eli Fountain’s drum music, what unfolded was a profound search for origins. The more they navigated troubled waters, the more they realized they’d been wading through those origins all along, and that their shouting voices had roots that went beyond their birth.
Every repeated action planted a seed of change. Every push was a reminder of the pull. Every fallen tree was an opportunity to grow another. During the evening’s tensest passage, our central guide drew an invisible map along the floor with her fingertip before releasing its destination like a bird of hope. And when voices sang of the “straight and narrow way,” we knew that hope to be a blessed one, wrapped in wool, not feathers.
All of which acted as prelude to Claudia Schreier’s “Passage.” Premiered in May of this year, it was the most recent work on the program, if also the most ancient in scope. Most astonishing about this ensemble piece was how every body was rendered equal. Even displays of sheer virtuosity, such as when two beautifully guided bodies appeared to swim like dolphins in midair or when figures appeared to skate on raised arches as if blown back by some apocalyptic power, were meant not to showcase but to humble. The music, by violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery, at once informed and responded to onstage actions. With a flowering sense of togetherness, the dancers made the impossible seem possible only by the unity of their contact, along the way proving that symmetry is an individual choice, and that if you kill one element, you wound the whole.
The concluding “Return” (1999) was a slap in the face of light by a hand of darkness. Robert Garland’s choreography, in conjunction with songs by James Brown and Aretha Franklin, threaded a chain of configurations, sensual and brimming with agency. The dancers even walked with conviction. But while it was easy to read “Return” as an ode to joy, in light of the poignant flesh in which those middle two gifts were wrapped, it was impossible to see it through anything but a cautionary lens. For it is this same love of material things, including one’s own physical self, that blinds us to the importance of spiritual things. The drama of romance was therefore no longer something to aspire to, but regard as an echo of a life no longer lived, shed for the eternal comforts of glory.