Dance Theatre of Harlem has become a regular visitor to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, embodying the message of hope in the center’s observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Kicking off the holiday weekend, DTH returned to Prudential Hall on Friday with a program of svelte neo-classical works by African-American choreographers including Darrell Grand Moultrie, Robert Garland and the late Ulysses Dove, whose “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” gave the evening its extraordinary centerpiece.
A welcome from NJPAC’s President and CEO, John Schreiber, and remarks by the arts center’s dance ambassador, Savion Glover, opened the program, which also featured a speech by the Rev. Jerry Sanders of Summit. Recalling current events yet reassuring his listeners, Sanders described a pathway dogged by nightmares but leading surely to the fulfillment of dreams. This sermon echoed the principles of star dancer Arthur Mitchell and his associate, Karel Shook, who formed DTH in 1969 to help combat the racism that had led to King’s murder.
Moultrie’s “Vessels” began the dancing portion of the evening with a burst of excitement, as three ballerinas darted from the wings. The women turned briefly upstage before leaping straight at the audience, only to deflect the movement an instant later by lunging on a diagonal. While the choreographer channeled their power into clean, extended lines and made it turn sharp corners, the dancers’ power seemed barely contained.
A bustling ensemble followed, hinting at an undercurrent of energy even in a “walking” section where some of the individuals journeying across the stage staggered the design as those go-getters rushed ahead of the others. Then came a showcase for four women, lightly characterized as they took turns flying or sinking, advancing coquettishly or with stealth.
The highlight of “Vessels,” however, was a pas de deux in ballet’s gallant tradition. Chrysten Fentroy made the most of it, suspending some gestures with breathtaking lyricism but sharply attacking other parts of the duet and looking effortlessly buoyant in a series of leaps where her partner, Jorge Andrés Villarini, supported her with one hand.
Both “Vessels” and Garland’s familiar “Return,” which concluded the mixed bill, are sprawling divertissements designed to give everyone a chance to show off. What makes “Vessels” merely an enticing opener and “Return” a joyous finale is Garland’s willingness to embrace the vibrant personalities of popular music. Audiences are still happily surprised to hear favorite recordings by James Brown and Aretha Franklin played at a ballet concert; while everyone loves the hip-swishing antics of Nyara Lopes in “Mother Popcorn”; Fentroy making much ado over her train of lovers in “Call Me;” and Da’Von Doane radiating charm and self-confidence in “Superbad.”
“Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” is something else, however. It’s rigorously spare where the other pieces are generous, and its darkly lit scenes erupt, one after the other, with startling force. Each one seems capped under pressure. The women hover on their pointes, and pay such careful attention to the way they hold their hands — delicately cupped or angled just so. Every movement is restrained, its energy tautly withheld until the body whips into a new position, or until the dancers arrive at a place where the only way out of an impasse is through a desperate, headlong fling. Then a woman may run the length of the stage and hurl herself at her partner.
This explosive quality is present from the moment the dancers run to the light at the center of the stage and clasp hands to form a tense yet flexible circle. That image will return, portraying a small community of friends electrified by the ballet’s themes of love and loss. A brief time on earth has been allotted to these characters; and the tolling of bells gives the ballet’s four sections — “Love,” “Friendship,” “Loss” and “Letting Go” — a funereal air.
Alison Stroming screws her body into a twist, or curls around Francis Lawrence. He stands manfully apart from the three women who attend him, or pirouettes with one foot extended skimming the floor. Lindsay Croop raises one leg in a striking, ecarté position and balances on pointe, seemingly frozen. In the central duet for two men, Villarini runs his hands down Anthony Javier Savoy’s body and legs and then catches him under the thighs to propel him forward. Savoy, who covers his eyes at some points, responds with febrile intensity.
The most poignant image in the dance belongs to the two men, and in a piece of lightning-sharp reflexes it unfolds slowly. Dove wanted to make sure we got the point. As if responding to an invitation, Savoy ducks under Villarini’s outstretched arm to assume a comradely pose in which the arm fits around his shoulders. The moment doesn’t last, however, as Savoy then continues stepping forward, exiting into darkness.