Dance Theater of Harlem Celebrates Its 25th Year Preserving Ballets

A QUARTER century ago, a talented dancer planted his dream in Harlem where it blossomed into a vibrant ballet company. Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) has become one of the performing arts' most welcomed treasures. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with performances at the New York State Theater through March 27.

At last week's opening, the company was in good form as it breezed through a varied program. The evening began with a magical retelling of John Taras's stunning ``Firebird,'' set to the original Igor Stravinsky score. Guest artist Stephanie Dabney, as the Firebird, thrilled with her intricate work en pointe. Her precision and grace captured the flighty and staccato moves of the mythical bird.

Garth Fagan's ``Footprints Dressed in Red,'' the evening's second ballet, was first performed in Florence, Italy, in 1986, and was commissioned especially for DTH. It is an extremely difficult dance, filled with contradictory choreography that requires a dancer to quickly move from flexed positions to pointe.

Some of the women, particularly prima ballerina Virginia Johnson, were tentative in their moves and even shaky in trying to position their feet in this demanding work.

The program concluded with the powerful ``A Song for Dead Warriors.'' It is a ballet inspired by the native American struggle against injustice, and traces the life of one Indian man. Michael Smuin's choreography is enhanced with brilliant lighting by Sara Linnie Slocum and projection design by Ronald Chase. Willa Kim's costumes add an understated drama.

``A Song for Dead Warriors'' charms with some wonderful theatrics and staging, including a herd of buffalo stomping through clouds of dust. Hugues Magen is the featured dancer and was superb. Judith Rotardier, as his lover, was sweetly affecting, and Lowell Smith made a menacing lawman. It is a haunting and important work whose message lingers.

The Dance Theater of Harlem prides itself on preserving American dance repertory, and does an excellent job of presenting works that otherwise would disappear because they are not performed regularly. The company also demonstrates a variety of styles and moods, from the classical ``Swan Lake'' to the neoclassical ``Serenade'' to the contemporary and ethnic ``Dougla'' to the folk ballet ``John Henry.''

Mitchell, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, retired from that company in 1970 to start DTH. He has led the troupe to international renown, but has kept its roots firmly planted in Harlem. The company recently completed a $7 million renovation of its headquarters and dance school.

During its Lincoln Center run, the company also will perform the premiere of Ron Cunningham's ``Etosha,'' and revivals of ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' ``Equus,'' and ``John Henry.'' Cunningham marks an anniversary

MODERN-DANCE luminary Merce Cunningham turns 75 on April 16, and the arts community is wasting no time in celebrating. Major artists and entertainers such as Roy Lichtenstein, Bette Midler, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Redford, Joan Rivers, and Tommy Tune are making birthday cards. The cards, which will be displayed at the Cartier store on New York's Fifth Avenue, are to be auctioned to raise money for the Cunningham Dance Foundation.

The iconoclastic choreographer's namesake company performs at New York's City Center until March 20.

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