Dance Theatre Harlem Hits the Stage in Kingston, Jamaica
The effortless transitions, the visually stimulating scenes and the strength of well-toned bodies were poignant features of Dance Theatre Harlem’s performance on Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 12:00pm. The show, presented by The Embassy of the United States of America, had the theme “Celebrating the ties that bind 50 years of friendship”. That message was clear onstage and off. Fate smiled and landed me in a seat just beside the Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Virginia Johnson, and Founding Member of Dance Theatre Harlem, Jamaican Patsy Ricketts. Patsy Ricketts also danced on Jamaica’s Stage as a Principal Dancer of the National Dance Theatre Company for many years.
When Johnson sat beside Ricketts it was like a reunion of sisters, that sense of shared history was undeniable. They laughed through hellos and spoke admiringly of their first interactions with Arthur Mitchell the Co-Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of DTH. It was schoolgirl giggles as Rickets asked Johnson her Zodiac Sign, and they recalled that this was a critical determinant if you could make the DTH cut with ‘Arthur’ or not. “Arthur was Aries”, and reluctant to work other ‘fire’ signs.
I leaned over and asked Rickets how this all began. She shared that while studying at the Graham School of Arts for two years on two consecutive scholarships Derek Williams a member of the National Dance Theatre Company knew that Arthur Mitchell, having just left the National Ballet was forming a new company. Open to exploring new techniques and styles Rickets was interested in auditioning.
The audition, she shared, was in a church building in Harlem. According to Rickets “Arthur Mitchell was taking people off the streets” and he told her “your feet are dreadful, but we’ll work on it, I like your spirit”. She started working as an apprentice in 1969-1970, after becoming a full member.
We paused as Keith Saunders, Director of the Ensemble, introduced the company and the curtains opened with a ballet titled ‘Six Piano Pieces’ choreographed by David Fernandez, performed by the dancers, to live accompaniment by piano soloist Melody Fader. Mayuko Shoka, Ashley Murphy and Rene Bharath Kim were the three dancers whose personalities stood out during this piece. Ricketts remarked as it ended that Shoka reminded her of ‘Virginia’ in her days with the company.
The audience was thrilled by the duet which followed titled ‘Episode’, choreographed by Peter Pucci, and performed by Lordes Rodriguez and Fredrick Davis. The two characters, decked in red and black, worked created illusions of oneness throughout the piece incorporating acrobatic references with striking effect. New Bach choreographed by resident choreographer Robert Garland followed, and showcased breathtaking transitions and tableau’s and gave a good sense of the style and variations that categorized DTH over the years.
We began talking about the culture of dance, and she highlighted that one of the big limitations was that there was a perception that dance was not something to make a living out of, citing how difficult it is for a child in society to say, “I don’t want to go to medical school but to dance instead”. This is directly linked to the lack of hours of committed dance time for many dancers who practice in after-work hours 2 to 3 times a week. Ricketts stressed that dance training needed to be 6 hours a day to gain levels of excellence. She cited Cuba as a good example of how the arts have facilitated and the culture is facilitative to the maintenance of high standards.
The curtains opened once more and this time on stage we see silhouettes on four men on stage, a lone female in a short red costume is visible. It was the highlight of the afternoon. The piece, titled ‘In the Mirror of her mind’, choreographed by Christopher Huggins to benefit dancers responding to HIV/AIDS featured Ashley Murphy, Alexandra Jacob Wilson, Fredrick Davis, Jehbreal Jackson and David Kim and was emotionally riveting. The audience members gasping as they experienced raw emotions signaling the battle which the characters on stage were all confronted with.
The show was strong from beginning to end and a piece titled ‘Return’ a very lively ‘neo-classical urban funky’ piece also by Richard Garland ended the afternoons offerings. The score was a mix of the legends of funk James Brown and Aretha Franklin.