In its fifth year, Ballet Across America is still offering an exhilarating week of culture and dance at The Kennedy Center. An initiative designed to “explore the breadth and depth of American ballet,” this year’s program features works by Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Miami City Ballet. Introducing the show, current artistic director for Dance Theater of Harlem, Virginia Johnson, reflected on the company’s founder, Arthur Mitchell, and his interest in what “ballet might be,” and especially, “what is possible when you create opportunity and access.” If the program is any measure, what is possible is the highest form of artistic achievement.
Before getting to what might be in ballet, the program opens with what ballet has been, starting with a very traditional production of “Valse Fantaisie.” The delightfully elegant piece features choreography by George Balanchine, with perfect technique and even lines. The pivot to the second piece, “Change,” is as stark and purposeful as the name suggests, demarcating where ballet can go.
… an exhilarating week of culture and dance.
As if signaling a new era, the sequence opens in darkness, with only the sound of a ringing bell. Three women (Lindsey Croop, Ingrid Silva, Stephanie Rae Williams) gather onstage in attitudes of seeking and pursuing. Though on pointe, Dianne McIntyre’s choreography emphasizes the raw strength of the women with a contemporary style; their show of power is further underscored in successive solos, during which they at times give a determined shout or yell. It’s a striking piece, made even more significant by its purpose in commemorating “Black, Brown and Beige” women who are not always given their due as “warriors for change,” as explained in the show’s notes. Further emphasizing its themes of heritage and possibility, the dancer’s costumes, designed by Oran Bumroongchart, are made from the tights of former members of the Dance Theater of Harlem.
The sense of a journey and movement continues into “Passage,” commissioned for the 50th anniversary of Dance Theater Harlem. Here the dance, like the a-melodic score by Jessie Montgomery, seems in a minor key. Claudia Schreier’s dynamic choreography features tension between uplift and burden. The opening sequence finds dancers carried on each other’s shoulders, segueing to a gorgeous interlude in which dancers, carried aloft, dip and bob like birds.
This contemplative, introspective dance contrasts nicely with the jubilant, crowd-pleasing “Dougla” that ends the show; the title refers to Trinidadian people of mixed Indian and African descent. The most traditionally narrative piece of the evening, the dance describes the betrothal and marriage of two Dougla people. The striking costumes, executed by Zelda Wynn (and reconstructed by Vernon Ross and Pamela Allen-Cummings) set the scene immediately, with white skirts ornamented by bright red pops of color.
A celebratory atmosphere, underscored by the insistent and persistent percussive beat, pervades the entire piece, which sees the marriage story unfold, marked by a background showing the turning of the moon. Geoffrey Holder’s confident, buoyant choreography often makes the dancers appear bird-like as they shiver their plume-like headpieces with delicate head movements.
“Dougla” is a gorgeous finale to an incredibly satisfying evening of dance and drama. The only thing more enjoyable will be to see where the series goes next.
Running Time: About 2 hours, with two intermissions.
Advisory: The performance uses smoke effects.
“Ballet Across America” runs through June 2 at the Kennedy Center. For tickets or more information, click here.
Note: Program content may differ. This is a review of the May 28 performance.