Review: Dance Theater of Harlem’s Soulful Ballet to Stevie Wonder

Dance is perfectly capable of saying something on its own, but music can help. The sung lyrics are more perilous, introducing the threat of literalism, but the combination of dance and words, handled well, can heighten the meaning. An example: Robert Garland’s “Higher Ground,” which had its New York premiere this week, when the Dance Theater of Harlem returned to New York City Center.

Garland, the company’s resident choreographer, chose six songs from Stevie Wonder’s 1970s catalog. It was a period in which Wonder’s musical genius exploded, his astonishing creativity fueled by outrage at racial injustice, which he directly addressed in his lyrics. Only the titles of Garland’s first three selections convey the essentials: “Look Around”, “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”, “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away”.

This moving, funky social commentary is the subject of the dance. The dancers look around, form circles and chains, point and fall backwards. As in music, there are signs of strength and hope. When the Jackson Five add their vocals to sing “doo-doo-wop,” Garland offers a dance equivalent, while rolling hips and shoulders. When Wonder sings of opening your heart to feel the spirit, Garland has the dance language for the gospel elevator.

Combining black vernacular dance with classical ballet, as Garland does here, has long been his signature. But it’s ballet alone that he applies to devastating effect in the next track, “Village Ghetto Land.” In this song, Wonder plays the role of a tour guide, creating a sarcastic contrast between stately baroque accompaniment and lines about starving people eating dog food and babies dying before birth, “infected with grief.” . Garland gets Amanda Smith on pointe and behaves like the sugar plum fairy welcoming us to candy land. The purity of his technique sharpens the sarcasm to an almost unbearable point.

Then, Garland offers a vision of escape with the closing songs “Saturn” and “Higher Ground”, employing all the challenge of ballet’s gravity, its thrilling lifts and holds (perfectly executed by Alexandra Hutchinson and Kouadio Davis) and the formations spaces of a classic final. , all on the funk metal of Wonder. In this context, these conventions are reinvested with meaning and emotion, joy and pleasure deepened by the knowledge of pain.

In places, Garland does not rely enough on the formal power of her choreography and emphasizes with obvious gestures. But he has something important to convey. “Look around you”, says this ballet; look what hasn’t changed since the 70s. But he also says, “look around you”, the Dance Theater of Harlem, which was just started in those years, continues to exist, always claiming the language and the beauty of ballet for black dancers.

After this anticyclone, the rest of Friday’s programme, although varied, took place on a gentle slope. Claudia Schreier’s “Passage,” also premiering in New York, was made in 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in America. But he treats his subject more abstractly, closely tied to a dramatic score commissioned by Jessie Montgomery, performed live by a chamber ensemble.

It begins with a watery illumination (by Nicole Pearce), with women lifted and undulating like waves. When the score accelerates and bounces like a ship at full speed, the choreography also takes the wind. Throughout, Schreier deftly imparts a gliding flow to elegantly shifting formations. Anthony Santos – emerging this season as the company’s dynamic leader – becomes a central figure on the run, pulled by the tides and eventually joining the others as they reach the light, more widespread higher ground. In short, it’s a successful ballet that seems a bit anonymous.

The best of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Balamouk” is its music: Roma and klezmer songs from Les Yeux Noirs, among others, played live by the Klezmatics. It gives the dancers a feast, with part of the forced cheering, and showcases the samba steps and queen presence of Ingrid Silva. Made in 2018, it was expanded without any benefits.

What could be extended is “Higher Ground”. As comprehensive as it is, Garland’s work makes me want more, and the same Wonder albums offer so much more to Garland. For now, this ballet made just before the pandemic shows that the Dance Theater of Harlem is not only going through extremely difficult times, but seems to be growing stronger.

Harlem Dance Theater

Through April 10 at City Center, Manhattan; citycenter.org.

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