at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

May 11-13

When Arthur Mitchell and his Dance Theatre of Harlem returned from the Soviet Union last spring, they trailed clouds of glory from their triumphs in the birthplace of classical ballet. Mitchell said proudly, “There’s nothing left for us to prove.” Of course a ballet company, like any other artistic enterprise, has to continue to prove itself endlessly. But Mitchell–the first black dancer in New York City Ballet–has proved his basic point: that properly trained black youngsters can perform classical ballet beautifully.

The audiences that filled the Civic Center for Performing Arts’ four recent performances welcomed the company back to Chicago, after a seven-year absence, with cheers. The sleek, confident, handsome corps–living proof of Mitchell’s 20-year commitment–showed off its very considerable talents in an interesting, eclectic program of three stylistically diverse works: George Balanchine’s neoclassic The Four Temperaments, Mitchell’s John Henry, and John Taras’s version of Firebird, the 1910 classic based on a Russian fairy tale.

Yet the program was not as consistently effective as one might have anticipated. The performance of The Four Temperaments, which should have demonstrated DTH’s mastery of neoclassical training and style, lacked the necessary split-second timing and precision; it rarely clarified the exquisite choreographic complexities of this seminal 1946 work. Balanchine’s choreography is a visualization of the music, Paul Hindemith’s theme-and-variations score (taped, as all the music was) on the four temperaments–the melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric. The costumes are stark black leotards–the better to concentrate on the intricacies of the movement. DTH dancers certainly have the virtuosity required for the work, so perhaps it was opening-night nerves that affected the performance.

Several members of the two casts I saw, however, were impressive–notably Judy Tyrus and Augustus Van Heerden on Thursday, and Virginia Johnson and Lowell Smith on Saturday night, in the sanguinic variation; and Robert Garland (both evenings) in the phlegmatic. He looks as if he’d been born to dance Balanchine.

John Henry is Mitchell’s affectionate tribute to the hammer-wielding black railroad hero of folk legend and song. He competed against a steam drill and won, but he paid for his victory with his life. The ballet–a lively mix of folk and jazz dance–describes, in movement, what Leon Bibb’s taped voice sings: in a way, this dance belongs to the genre of Americana ballets of the past, many of which are now being revived.

But Mitchell’s John Henry is not a ballet on an epic scale. He recognizes John Henry’s epic achievement, but he tells the story in a high-spirited human style. He introduces John Henry as a youngster with his parents, demonstrates his adult strength, introduces his wife in a charming, witty pas de deux, reaches a stunning climax in Henry’s battle with the drill (brilliantly personified by Garland and four other men clad in steel-gray costumes), and then gives us John Henry’s death. But Mitchell refuses to end on that tragic note. He honors his hero’s indomitable spirit with a jazzy hoedown for the company, led, by Yvonne Hall as Henry’s wife.

Eddie J. Shellman was a superb John Henry. His spectacular high-flying leaps, which seemed suspended in air, his swift spins, and his characterization of the workingman who struggles against dehumanization were all wonderfully earthy. Carl Michel’s stylized railroad-engine set offered a dramatic opening backdrop, and his street costumes suited the work. John Henry was a strong crowd pleaser.

Firebird has been choreographed and rechoreographed many times over the years. Most, but not all, have stayed within the Russian atmosphere of Stravinsky’s magical score. (One notable exception was Maurice Bejart’s version, in which the Firebird was a revolutionary guerrilla.) Taras’s Firebird is hardly notable choreographically. As DTH performs it, it owes much of its impact to Stephanie Dabney’s dazzling quicksilver interpretation of the Firebird.

The only other striking elements are Geoffrey Holder’s set and costumes: Holder has placed the work in a magical tropical forest that has nothing to do with Mother Russia. The backdrop is exotically beautiful, but we don’t see enough of it because Paul Sullivan’s lighting is rather eccentric throughout. The costumes are wildly colorful and fanciful–the captive princesses’ skirts resemble flower petals. The Evil Creatures wear strangely patterned robes that still allow them to roll around freely in their battle with the hero–Ronald Perry, who wears a curious brief white skirt, Apollonian Greek in style.

Perry, usually a dynamic personality, seemed curiously adrift here. But then, Taras has given him little of interest to do. Even the pas de deux with the Firebird lacked tension and excitement. Taras has also made the villainous magician a woman–on toe, yet. Perhaps, in our feminist era, a woman has the right to be as rotten as any man.

Lorraine Graves was a beautiful if uninspiring princess: she’s too tall for Perry, and she doesn’t have an elegant line. The ballet was busy and colorful enough to be fun in a kitschy way, but it was Dabney who was memorable. When, at the end, she rose high above the stage and beamed at the wedding her beneficent magic had made possible, the dance was transformed into the sort of spectacle synonymous for centuries with ballet.