In 1955, the same year the courageous Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, a young dancer named Arthur Mitchell broke the color barrier in the world of classical ballet. He became the first African-American male to attain a permanent position with a major US ballet company, George Balanchine's New York City Ballet.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was tragically felled by an assassin's bullet little more than a decade later, Mitchell took his dreams and ambitions one step further. After years of being a role model as a performer, Mitchell took to the studios as a teacher, setting up shop in a garage in Harlem. A year later, in 1969, he and Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) company and the School of Dance Theatre of Harlem, with its mission to provide opportunity for young people in Harlem to study and perform ballet.
Not only have Harlem youngsters been enriched, but the critically acclaimed neoclassical company has also touched the lives of people young and old around the world with a diverse repertory of lively, accessible works. The company's repertory ranges from classic works in the European ballet tradition to works uniquely expressive of the African-American experience.
The company returned to Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass., Aug. 5-9 for the first time in 24 years, a rather surprising absence considering the company's first public performances took place at the summer dance festival in 1970. But better late than never, and the company came with two new works that vividly showcased the range of both Mitchell's vision and his dancers' capabilities.
The most dazzling work on the program was the new "Sasanka," created by the young South African choreographer Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe especially for DTH. This dynamite work deftly fuses African dance with Asian movement, ballet, and Western contemporary dance forms, creating an aesthetic that is so integrated it looks not derivative but fresh and inventive.
It is set to a score juxtaposing pieces by Japanese drummers Ondekoza with African-based percussion by Synergy. As the work catapults into motion, dancers skitter like animals across the floor. Postures cant at the edge of balance are punctuated by flamboyant gestures, wriggling pelvises, and faces that peer curiously into the audience.
A series of fantastic solos highlight the dancers' remarkable extension and nimbleness. Even if slightly long and ambiguously structured, "Sasanka" is riveting, invigorating dance by a choreographer clearly worth watching.
The other new piece on the program, John Alleyne's lyrical "Adrian (Angel on Earth)," was less successful. Founded primarily on a jazz-inflected classical ballet vocabulary and set to an uninspiring piano score by Timothy Sullivan, the work begins sparely, accumulating texture, depth, and speed as it progresses. There is a lovely element of sweeping flow, as the 11 dancers move in and out of large, shifting patterns or quickly change partnering.
However, too many of the moves seem thrown, a bit out of control, sending the dancers into precarious balance and awkward adjustments of weight.
Though Alonzo King's 1995 "Signs and Wonders" is set to a vibrant collection of traditional African music, the movement comes largely out of a contemporary ballet aesthetic, with long, clean lines, graceful, curved arms, and the women en pointe. The contrast is intriguing but also a bit jarring in spots.
The most effective sections are for the men, with movement of sensual, muscular vigor. There is also a gorgeous adagio in which Thaddeus Davis lovingly molds the lithe Virginia Johnson into long, fluid extensions.
The work seems destined for a dynamic ending, as a flurry of quick entrances and exits creates a high-energy blur of perpetual motion, but the curtain closes with just two dancers onstage in movement that has no sense of either indefinite continuity or closure. It fizzles disappointingly.