Pushing the Boundaries of Ballet

Dance Theatre of Harlem continues its tradition of nontraditional choreography

The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) made its name, and forever altered the face of concert dance, by laying to rest the age-old myth that blacks and ballet belong on separate stages. Now in its 26th year, DTH shows no signs of abandoning its efforts to pioneer new choreographic terrain.

This commitment was evident in a March 14 gala performance of three highlights from the company's recent season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which concluded March 26. The program featured two world premieres -- Alonzo King's ''Signs and Wonders'' and Robert Garland's ''The Joplin Dances'' -- followed by last year's hit, Michael Smuin's ''A Song for Dead Warriors.'' (Not included was the season's other highlight, a retelling of George Balanchine's ''The Prodigal Son.'')

Although neither premiere matches the creative revisionism of the company's Caribbean ''Firebird'' or its Creole version of ''Giselle,'' both seek to challenge preconceptions of ballet.

King's ''Signs and Wonders'' is an abstract dance set to an engaging collection of African songs. Among them are a stirring choral work sung by Senegalese children and the enchanting hymn of a muezzin from Chad.

Against this rhythmic backdrop, a cast of 16 dancers moves alone and in small ensembles. Their searching, probing movements have the look and feel of exploration, and the tableaux they briefly form are reminiscent of both classical ballet and African sculpture.

One recurring image, suggesting a kind of birth or transformation, is of a dancer stepping through the loop that is formed by clasping his or her hands together. Sheer black briefs and T-shirts, by costume designers Robert Rosenwasser and Sandra Woodall, accentuated the dancers' muscular movements.

No explicit narrative accompanies the dance, but a program note, consisting of two quotations, helps explain the title. The first is from John's Gospel: ''Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.'' The second, a longer passage from a Walt Whitman poem, calls attention to the ready abundance of such evidence. ''I know of nothing else but miracles,'' Whitman writes. ''To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.''

King appeals to a similar sensibility, for ''Signs and Wonders'' is not the sort of dance that thrills with its grand jetes and scissoring sweeps of the legs. Like the Whitman poem, which celebrates such marvels as ''honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,'' it acknowledges the earthbound beauty of less dramatic movements.

Where classical ballet puts a premium on footwork en pointe, King would just as soon have a ballerina stand on her heels. He finds grace in a foot gliding across the floor, its arcing pattern not unlike the image Whitman evokes of ''the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring.''

If there are flaws in King's universe, they can be found in the duets. Invariably, one of the dancers gazes vacuously into the rafters or down at the floor while a partner manipulates his or her arms and legs. The meaning is unclear and the effect unwelcome.

''The Joplin Dances'' drew loud and sustained applause, but the hometown crowd might have been playing favorites. Composed by DTH principal dancer Robert Garland, the piece was problematic and in some ways amateurish. Set in a Southern parlor near the turn of the century, it follows a familiar story line about romance and courtship. What distinguishes the dance is not the plot or period costumes but the juxtaposition of balletic movement with ragtime rhythms.

As the orchestra delivers the syncopated melodies and solid bass lines of several Joplin rags, ballerinas in peach and lemon tutus run through their repertoire of plies and pirouettes. But watching the dancers try to keep pace with the score's fast tempo brought to mind the experience of viewing a Charlie Chaplin film.

The first scene strives for comic effect, but its physical pranks -- Tassia Hooks pulling away a chair just as Keith Saunders begins to sit down -- are a bit shopworn. The subsequent wedding scene can't shake this slapstick mood.

Garland never makes it clear whether he aims to show the versatility of balletic movement by pairing it with an unaccustomed musical genre or to poke fun at its refined courtly graces. This ambiguity leaves a viewer wondering whether to bow to his wisdom or wink at his wit.

A press release from the company leaves no doubt that Garland's intentions are earnest. ''Ragtime music suits the neoclassical dance idiom because it, like neoclassical dance, is very rhythm based,'' he writes. Garland's premise may well be correct, but this work makes an unconvincing argument.

The program concluded with ''A Song for Dead Warriors.'' Choreographed by Michael Smuin for the San Francisco Ballet in 1978, it tells of ill-fated lovers and the conquest of a people.

Luis Dominguez thrilled as a young native American who falls in love. In several memorable scenes, his ancestral chiefs show him how to live and how to love, how to fight for justice and how to fail. Yet when five white policemen rape and murder his girlfriend (Christina Johnson), he struggles to emulate these teachings.

He finds courage when the ancestors return in a final vision. An explosion of feathers and dancers fills the stage for a powwow that calls to mind the sacred Ghost Dance of the Lakota. This brilliantly conceived and stunningly performed epic simply astonishes. It deserves to become the company's signature piece.

*The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta (April 6-8), the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington (April 11-23), the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, Fla. (April 28-30), and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. (May 27-28).

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