Evaluation: Dance Theater of Harlem’s Soulful Ballet to Stevie Question

Dance is perfectly capable of expressing a little something all by by itself, but audio can support. Sung lyrics are much more perilous, introducing the threat of literalism, still the mix of dance and words and phrases, taken care of right, can heighten which means. A single example: Robert Garland’s intensely impacting “Higher Ground,” which experienced its New York premiere this week when Dance Theater of Harlem returned to New York Town Heart.

Garland, the company’s resident choreographer, has decided on six tunes from the 1970s catalog of Stevie Marvel. This was a period of time in which Wonder’s musical genius was exploding, his astonishing creativeness fueled by outrage at racial injustice, which he dealt with directly in his lyrics. Just the titles of Garland’s very first 3 choices convey the gist: “Look All-around,” “You Have not Accomplished Nothin’,” “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Gentle Decades Away.”

That social commentary, soulful and funky, is what the dance is about. The dancers appear all-around, sort circles and chains, issue fingers and slide backward. As in the music, there are indicators of toughness and hope. When the Jackson 5 include their voices to sing “doo-doo-wop,” Garland provides a dance equivalent, all rolling hips and shoulders. When Wonder sings of opening your heart to come to feel the spirit, Garland has the dance language for the gospel lift.

Combining Black vernacular dance with classical ballet, as Garland does below, has long been his signature. But it is ballet by itself that he applies to devastating impact in the future observe, “Village Ghetto Land.” In that music, Wonder plays tour guidebook, location up a sarcastic contrast between stately baroque accompaniment and lines about starving persons consuming pet dog food items and infants dying just before they are born, “infected by the grief.” Garland has Amanda Smith rise on pointe and behave like the Sugar Plum Fairy welcoming us into the Land of Sweets. The pureness of her method sharpens the sarcasm to an almost unbearable issue.

Then Garland offers a eyesight of escape with the closing tunes “Saturn” and “Higher Ground,” employing all of ballet’s gravity defiance, its thrilling lifts and catches (properly executed by Alexandra Hutchinson and Kouadio Davis) and the spatial formations of a classical finale, all to Wonder’s funk metal. In this context, those conventions are reinvested with that means and emotion, the joy and exciting deepened by the expertise of agony.

In places, Garland doesn’t trust ample in the official electricity of his choreography and underlines with clear gestures. But he has a thing vital to express. “Look all around,” this ballet suggests look at what has not modified because the ’70s. But it also says, “look all around,” Dance Theater of Harlem, just getting started in all those decades, is however going, nevertheless professing the language and magnificence of ballet for Black dancers.

After this higher, the relaxation of the software on Friday, however properly varied, experienced a gently downhill slope. Claudia Schreier’s “Passage,” also obtaining its New York premiere, was manufactured in 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in The usa. But it handles its issue a lot more abstractly, carefully attuned to a spectacular commissioned score by Jessie Montgomery, played dwell by a chamber ensemble.

It begins in watery illumination (by Nicole Pearce), with females lifted and undulated like waves. When the rating accelerates and bounces like a ship at complete pace, the choreography catches the wind, as well. Throughout, Schreier skillfully offers a gliding flow to elegantly shifting formations. Anthony Santos — rising this year as the company’s buoyant main man — results in being a central figure on the operate, pulled back again by the tides and sooner or later signing up for the other folks as they attain for the light-weight, a extra generalized increased ground. In all, it is an achieved ballet that feels a bit anonymous.

The very best component of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Balamouk” is its new music: Roma and klezmer songs by Les Yeux Noirs, amongst other individuals, performed stay by the Klezmatics. It offers the dancers a social gathering, with some of the cheer forced, and showcases the samba ways and queenly existence of Ingrid Silva. Created in 2018, it has been expanded to no advantage.

What could be expanded is “Higher Ground.” Entire as it is, Garland’s operate will make me want more, and the very same Marvel albums present considerably additional for Garland to use. For now, this ballet designed just just before the pandemic shows Dance Theater of Harlem not just weathering an exceptionally hard time but on the lookout stronger and stronger.

Dance Theater of Harlem

Via April 10 at Metropolis Center, Manhattan citycenter.org.