Dance Theatre of Harlem

at the Auditorium Theatre, May 9-11

Rites & Rituals

Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre, May 15-18

By Joseph Houseal

Since the inception of Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1968, the status of black people worldwide has changed, and so has the dance world. To think of DTH simply as the country’s premier black company is insufficient. It’s no longer uncommon to see black dancers proficient in ballet; indeed, former Ailey whiz kid Desmond Richardson is now a principal at American Ballet Theatre. And with the emergence of significant African and African-inspired companies and the presence of several black modern-dance troupes, which can assimilate nonclassical forms more easily than DTH, there are surely other companies that speak more directly to the black experience. Two aspects of DTH’s recent concerts–Virginia Johnson’s dancing and John Alleyne’s choreography–reveal the company’s true power: transcending the limits of race, class, and time. Meanwhile the absolute failure of a new work attempting to incorporate African movement, Sasanka, illustrates the pitfalls of facile new combinations.

Johnson, a charter member of DTH, was the world’s first black Giselle. She achieved her status as a prima ballerina the same way Leontyne Price achieved her status as a prima donna: by performing classical repertory with extraordinary grace and technical command. She secured her role in American history not by bringing street cred or tribal movements to dance but through her artistry. In The Moor’s Pavane, Jose Limon’s masterpiece based on the story of Othello, Johnson brought an elegance to Desdemona that, like the choreography, transcended time. It was inconsequential that everyone in this Moor’s Pavane was black. Inconsequential too was the choreographic basis of the piece: baroque dance, born in what may be the most politically incorrect epoch ever. But the baroque patterns find expanded expression in Limon’s balletic early-modern choreography. In early modern dance, from Louis Horst and Martha Graham to Limon and others, preclassic dance forms had a liberating influence: elemental patterns inflected by Western steps allowed for continual evolution. That fact coupled with Shakespeare’s insight, the released sense of freedom in Limon’s movement, and the stately passionate dancing gave DTH a universal, timeless essence.

When it comes to the black presence in ballet, nowhere is sheer progress more visible than in the work of John Alleyne. Currently artistic director of Ballet British Columbia, Alleyne has set works on the New York City Ballet, the Ballet of Monte Carlo, DTH, and his own group. Working in a style increasingly known as extreme ballet, he takes the conventions of classical dancing to the edge of chaos, which offers the maximum opportunity for expression.

Adrian (Angel on Earth)–his most recent creation, mounted on DTH earlier this spring–shows Alleyne in a more enriched and lyrical dimension, refining the edgy elegance of his earlier extreme use of ballet into a dialogue between spiritual beings. A change of direction in the torso is reiterated in larger patterns of movement flashing from the individual to the group, an impulse blossoming as the choreography becomes faster and more complex. DTH performs the piece in a studied, not yet extreme way. But the dancers have clearly mastered the style at a technical level. With more performances they will assuredly be dancing with more boldness: I’d like to see them perform this piece again in a year.

Sasanka is a new dance by South African choreographer Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe. The wisdom of putting a new piece on the same program with work by Limon and John Taras (in the Geoffrey Holder production of Firebird) is dubious. Where the corps work in Firebird is radiant and together, in Sasanka it’s terribly, inexcusably imprecise. African dancing is not a single entity–nor is Africa. A ballet company’s effort to capture a mythic fantasy of the place–even if the project is meant to heal the American black community–simply on the basis of the company’s skin color is doomed to failure.

Nor does Mantsoe refer to African culture except through the choreography: Sasanka is an abstract ballet. Most of the dancers had trouble with the awkwardly inserted African movement, which takes years to master. Though some seemed to have had African training, executing triple and quadruple torso undulations with grounded feet, most fumbled through one. The basic posture of African forms–turned-in feet, bent knees, pelvis thrust backward, and an arched back–is the very antithesis of ballet.

The choreography in Sasanka is stilted and halting, never changing its dynamic. The score, too, is uneven, more an honorable attempt than a success. Both music and dance are remarkable for their lack of sustained rhythm, very odd considering the unending pulse of many African forms. Through its failure, the piece highlights the oneness of American culture–not the oneness of race, a concept well on its way out. Dance Theatre of Harlem’s power rests in its shimmering expression of the oneness of humanity, and that is an identity it’s earned.

Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago offered an exuberant, erudite evening of authentic African ritual dances theatricalized and presented as concert dance. Like other ancient and non-Western forms, such as Middle Eastern and Indian classical dancing, that were never intended to be theatrical, African dance is finding an expanded life as it moves from ritual to art.

Not every dancer who’s part of this process necessarily believes in the rites, however. Africa is still a place where women are sometimes traded for cattle and female genital mutilation is rife. The current exhibition on voodoo at the Field Museum includes films of dancers possessed in ritual trances, but here the spirit possessions are staged, not real. Muntu’s work shines with respect for the ancestral heritage, however, honoring the tradition and illuminating the present with high-level dancing and masterful choreography suited to the modern Western stage. In one piece, Sama So, four different groups simultaneously perform different patterns until they finally merge into full-ensemble synchronized movement, a picture of community.

The dancing is totally direct, not at all abstracted to either drama or formalism: it’s an intensely physical expression of spiritual connection and community. The prototypical universal roles appear, especially in Kakilambe: hunter, warrior, holy man, wise woman. Whereas in Greek culture these were intellectualized in the classical tragedies and in Japanese culture they were rarefied in the No theater, here the rituals find new life onstage in physical expression.

Like Dance Theatre of Harlem, Muntu is made up of Americans: scholars, dancers, teachers, choreographers, musicians. But the ongoing healing of the unspeakable inhumanities suffered by Americans of African descent has joined a rising global consciousness of mythic Africa to restore dignity and self-possession. Art is powerful. It can convey the romance of an agenda, whether it’s political, as with the Leni Riefenstahl films of Nazi Germany, religious, as with the popular Western interpretation of Buddhism, or cultural, as here with Muntu, whose intent is obviously a more just and unified society.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dance Theater of Harlem; “Rites and Rituals” (Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago).