The brilliance that is Dance Theater of Harlem
Boston — It was interesting to see Dance Theater of Harlem do Balanchine's ''The Four Temperaments'' in Boston a week after the Boston Ballet danced it. Both companies' artistic directors danced with George Balanchine (Violette Verdy of Boston Ballet and Arthur Mitchell of Dance Theater of Harlem), and both have their own way of doing his work.
When Dance Theater of Harlem dances Balanchine, the company seems to be leaning on his choreography. Dancing with a kind of loose strength, DTH gives its movement an almost casual look. The Boston Ballet aspires to the razor-sharp angularity the New York City Ballet embodies with its attenuated, high-speed ballerinas, who slice through the air as they change directions, flashing down a diagonal line at you like lightning striking.
The ballerinas of DTH, on the other hand, give a lovely flex of the muscles and unfold long, powerful limbs in a strangely unperturbed way, as if they had found recesses of spare time in that packed choreography and were enjoying the feel of it. The enjoyment comes across to the audience.
When the score for ''Four Temperaments'' (Hindemith's ''Theme and Variations'') strikes a slavic note and the corps begins a little jogging suggestion of folk dance. It doesn't delineate each step sharply, putting it into quotes the way the Boston Ballet does. Instead, it shows us a powerful ripple that seems to sweep over the four dancers, as if the choreography were a river, moving them.
The triumph of DTH's Boston performance, though, was ''A Streetcar Named Desire.'' Vallerie Bettis's choreography, from the Tennessee Williams play, evokes characters, flashbacks, and madness as clearly as if it were being spoken. This dance fits the performers like a skin. In fact, they own it so completely that they seem to be making it up as they go along in that slow, confidently powerful way of theirs.
Stanley Kowalski, danced by Lowell Smith, is a strong man, a beautiful mover who is also a bully. You catch your breath as he struts and flexes in a taut trio with two card-playing buddies, but Smith keeps you on your guard. He presents an intimidating character.
Blanche Dubois, Kowalski's visiting sister-in-law, danced by Virginia Johnson , is a perfect opposite. Spindly and upright, rigid from trying to control her madness and keep the past at bay, Johnson flutters around the stage, then suddenly caves in and reaches out hungrily to touch a man's cheek or hug her sister.
She puts a feverish craving into one light touch that tells volumes. And her lightness and hunger seem to magnetize Stanley's solidity, so full of itself that it leaves a path of disturbance and dislocation like the wake of a storm.
The climax of the dance seems inevitable. Stanley grabs Blanche and thrashes her through the air. She stays rigid and flutters like a flag as she is whipped around in his grip. The violence is blown up by a light shined on them, casting a huge shadow behind them. One finds oneself watching the shadow, partly because it's hard to look at the dancers and partly because one can't believe it's really happening.
The production is brilliantly staged, with a few props that suggest an old New Orleans apartment and stoop. The lighting brings Blanche's memories, dancers dressed in gray, swarming through the ''walls.''
''Firebird,'' DTH's dance spectacular, choreographed by John Taras to Igor Stravinsky's music, blazes with brilliant colors and shimmering costumes. At the center is a frowning Stephanie Dabney, who appears in a red-plumed Firebird costume that would have done the Ziegfeld Follies proud, and proceedes to make us take her seriously. She stamps through her bourrees (little fast steps on point) and flutters her arms so fast it becomes a continuous shudder. When she goes offstage, she suddenly picks up speed and disappears as if she had vaporized in a fiery explosion of energy.
Dance Theater of Harlem is a supremely theatrical company, but one that seems so at home in all its brilliance and power that even when it's dancing so well you can't believe your eyes, it seems to be taking it easy.
The Dance Theater of Harlem's 1984 appearances include: The Island Center, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, Jan. 13; Reichhold Center for the Arts, Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, Jan. 14; San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jan. 16, 17; National Theater, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Jan. 19; Chatham High School, Chatham, N.J., Jan. 29; Civic Center Theater, Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 31- Feb. 1; Kentucky Center for the Arts, Louisville, Ky., Feb. 3, 4; Annenberg Center, Philadelphia, Feb. 6 , 7; Mosque Theater, Richmond, Va., Feb. 9; Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington, Feb. 14-19; and Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 7- 12.