writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

At Home in Balanchine

Apollo, Prodigal Son, Agon
Dance Theatre of Harlem
Opera House
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, June 8, 2004

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2004 by Alexandra Tomalonis
published June 8, 2004

Dance Theatre of Harlem was in fine fettle last night, and well worth fighting this week's extraordinary traffic to see. The past few seasons, we've not gotten the company at its best here; both the dancers and repertory have seemed tired. But in its all-Balanchine program, DTH is its sassy self again.

Perhaps the best news of the night was the return of Alicia Graf, who's been sidelined for several years with what was feared to be a career-threatening injury. She's back, in top form in the Agon pas de deux, with no visible ill effects. Though the reckless appetite that marked her dancing as a teenager is gone, other qualities more than make up for it. Graf's dancing is gracious and dangerous at the same time now. She's long everywhere—the torso, the limbs, the fingers, the feet—and has the most elegant hands I've seen in years; the fingers are alive and dance with the rest of her body.  It's a body built for Balanchine. She dances on a large scale, with phenomenal extensions and a lithe power, but neither are tricks nor done for effect; they seem organic to the choreography. She's extremely pliant, half-woman, half-serpent in the Agon pas de deux as she snakes around her partner, but she doesn't sacrifice tension for the pliancy. With Donald Williams, as able and self-effacing as ever, the duet was a dialogue. Graf seemed to be the dominant party in the relationship, but it was really Williams who was twisting her, supporting her; even when lying at her feet, it was he who was pulling the strings.

The company has been dancing Agon for decades; it's theirs now. The dancers are comfortable in it, dancing in a slightly different accent from New York City Ballet, which they're quite entitled to do. Last night's performance was adult entertainment all the way, the dancing sophisticated and unforced, the dancers riding the music like waves. Ikolo Griffin was light and loose in the Sarabande, Akua Parker subtly sultry in the Branle Gay, and the ensemble jazzy and happy on a hot summer night. A sunny Agon? Why not?

DTH has always had a way with narrative ballets, and its Prodigal Son (staged by Suzanne Farrell) is truly the story of the Prodigal's journey, not just "my wild and crazy night with the Siren." Duncan Cooper isn't the most electric Prodigal on the boards today, but he's a sincere one, and gives a very thoughtful performance; like protagonists in the best fiction, he changes as his story progresses, and you can see him change. Caroline Rocher was an appropriately queenly Siren. In this version, the Siren and her Goons aren't evil, more a different culture into which the Prodigal has strayed. I don't know who the first Goon was, but he was wonderful, staying in a deep squat whenever called for. The others, as seems to be the fashion nowadays, barely bent their knees, but merely ambled about, more goofs than goons.

Aside from this, and rather stiff dancing from the two Friends, it was a fine performance. Dionne Figgins and Ebony Haswell were sweet and loving sisters. James Washington's Father seemed to initiate the power struggle with his son in the leaving home scene; he knew the Son was going to be rebellious, yet forced him to kneel, forced his head down, daring the Son to buck away. It's details like that that make DTH one of America's strongest dramatic ballet companies.

Apollo, which opened the program, is still a work in progress. The staging is credited to Eve Lawson (who also staged Agon), and we learned from the Balanchine Wall to Wall conversations in New York earlier this year that Jacques d'Amboise, NYCB's great Apollo from the 1950s and '60s, coached Rasta Thomas in his role. The company dances the 1950s version, with the birth scene beginning and staircase ascent ending. It was hard to tell whether the dancing, with its soft edges and curved lines, was a deliberate throwback to the older, demi-caractère version, or if the DTH dancers, especially the three Muses, were a bit slack.

Rasta Thomas, a local boy making his local debut with the company, was a very jazzy, powerful boy Apollo, frisky as a large, rebellious puppy in his variations, but not quite godlike enough at the end. Apollo's relationship with Terpsichore (Tai Jiminez) was rather vague, as well. They seemed more like two kids at the hop than god and muse, with Jiminez being overtly seductive; any notion of a sublime, artistic connection between the two was lost. Elsewhere, there are dramatic details and gestures in this version that have been ironed out into steps in the past 30 years that were interesting to see. Their presence made the ballet, oddly, seem more more modern by implying the aesthetic of the era. The musicality seemed different, too, less punchy and more fluid, and the dancers did a fine job of phrasing, connecting the steps rather than serving them up one at a time.

At the end of the evening, after Agon, the company got one of the most enthusiastic receptions I've seen here in years.  Not the frenzied cheering offered to a star who's turned in a medal-winning performance, but an outpouring of love for the company. There were so many calls, someone came out from the wings to take pictures of the audience! Partly this was probably in response to Graf's electric Agon, but it was for the company, and Arthur Mitchell, who took a call, as well. DTH's financial situation has always been as tense as the Agon pas de deux, and its current status has been reported to be grave indeed. If the dancers were affected by this, it didn't show, and that's the mark of a champion. Now, if only a wealthy and generous talk show hostess.....

Photo: Caroline Rocher and Duncan Cooper in Balanchine's The Prodigal Son. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

originally published:
Volume 2, Number21
June 9, 2004

© 2004 Alexandra Tomalonis




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last updated on April 19, 2004