Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 14, 2019

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through July 14, 2019
by Josephine Sarnelli

“Versatility” best describes the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Whether performing jazz en pointe, a passionate pas de deux, classical Balanchine, or contemporary folkloric to Yiddish music, DTH does it with technical proficiency, sensuality and a uniqueness all their own. The troupe was still in their infancy in 1970 for their first performance at Jacob’s Pillow. It is sad that their founder, Arthur Mitchell, passed away in September 2018 and could not be present to help celebrate their 50th anniversary.  

Photo by Rachel Neville
The opener, “Harlem on My Mind,” is a wonderful fusion of traditional ballet and jazz in its purest form. The medley of musical scores included pieces performed by Count Basie, Chris Botti and Wynton Marsalis. With both African and Latin undertones to the music, the choreography transparently blends movements from these cultures, further enhanced with pointe work. There is a playfulness that shows through with facial expressions and the ten dancers genuinely look to be enjoying their interaction with the audience, which is something often missing from contemporary dance.

Yinet Fernandez and Anthony Santos were magnificent in “The Bitter Earth.” Their intimate partnering connection embody the bluesy lyrics, as Dinah Washington sings of the redemptive quality of love in an otherwise hardened and lonely world. The passion resonates through the dancers’ tender aerial lifts and warm caresses.  

Lovers of traditional classical ballet were delighted by the inclusion of George Balanchine’s “Valse Fantaisie.” The 1953 choreography remains ageless and clearly exemplifies that DTH is proficient in multiple forms of dance. This work gives focus to not only the two soloists, but also the corps. The grand jetés were powerful and the point work looked effortless.

The final work, “Balamouk,” had its world premier in October 2018. It was choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the 2019 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award Winner. The upbeat score, by the same name, blends Eastern European gypsy music with Yiddish klezmer. The audience could imagine themselves in the midst of an ethnic street scene or as a guest at a wedding, with the spontaneous urge to join in the festivities. The lighting enhanced this production and created interesting shadow effects of the performers. In a time when so much of new choreography evokes dark emotions, it is wonderful to view this newly commissioned piece that celebrates joy.