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Dance Theatre Of Harlem

Gould / Downes / Hamilton / Rosenstock
Release Date: 02/28/2012 
Label:  Arthaus Musik   Catalog #: 100175  
Composer:  Morton GouldBob DownesJudith HamiltonMilton Rosenstock
Performer:  Leon Bibb
Conductor:  Markus LehtinenDavid LamarcheMilton Rosenstock
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Danish National Radio Symphony OrchestraDanish Radio Concert Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Low Stock: Currently 3 or fewer in stock. Usually ships in 24 hours, unless stock becomes depleted.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Morton Gould

Lizzie – Virginia Johnson
Lizzie as a Child – Joselli Audain
Mother – Lorraine Graves
Father – Hugues Magen
Stepmother – Stephanie Dabney
Pastor – Lowell Smith
Speaker for the Jury – Dean Anderson

Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Markus Lehtinen, conductor

Agnes de Mille, choreographer
Oliver Smith, set designer
Stanley Simmons, costume designer

Bob Downes

Dance Theatre of Harlem
Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
David LaMarche, conductor

Robert North, choreographer
Peter Farmer, costume designer
Read more /> Judith Hamilton

The Woman – Cassandra Phifer
The Man – Hugues Magen

Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
David LaMarche, conductor

Lester Horton, choreographer
Thomas Winther, costume designer

Milton Rosenstock

John Henry – Eddie J. Shellman
Girlfriend / Wife – Yvonne Hall
Mother – Felicity De Jager
Father – Lowell Smith
Young John Henry – Gregory Jackson
The Machine – Ronald Perry

Leon Bibb, singer
Milton Rosenstock, conductor

Arthur Mitchell, choreographer
Ves Harper, set designer
Carl Michel, costume designer
Warren Scott Schilk, lighting designer

- Introduction by the company


Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles (bonus): German, English, French, Spanish, Greek
Running time: 120 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)

R E V I E W:


DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM Virginia Johnson, Joselli Audain, Stephanie Dabney, Lowell Smith, Hughes Magen, Dean Anderson, Fabian Barnes, Tyrone Brooks, Vince Collins, Marcus McGregor, Cassandra Phifer, Eddie J. Shellman, Yvonne Hall, Felicity de Jager, dancers ARTHAUS MUSIK 100175 (DVD: 120:00 Text and Translation)

& Introduction by the company

This remarkable visual document of the Dance Theatre of Harlem appears to be neither filmed nor originally aired in this country, but rather produced in Denmark in 1989. It was first issued as a VHS tape by Kultur in 1989, according to the WorldCat database. It actually consists of two programs, the first being an introduction to the company by founder Arthur Mitchell and a performance of Fall River Legend, which runs more than 52 minutes. The second consists of three shorter ballets, two of them being introduced by the choreographers.

In introducing his company, Mitchell talks about the uphill battle he faced when he conceived the Dance Theatre—not only the suspicion of audiences that black dancers weren’t good enough to perform classical ballet, but also the attitudes of the residents. “They said we could never get black people interested in classical ballet, with its rigorous training and the use of classical music,” Mitchell recalled, “but I felt that they would come if we maintained our high-quality standards. … I wanted to pass this on, to leave a legacy to the community.” What started out in a Harlem garage with 30 dance students blossomed, during its first full year, to 400 students. Once people realized that Mitchell meant business, and had the connections to get his dancers professional work, students flocked to him.

Yet Mitchell knew, going into the venture, how much hard work was needed. Born in 1934, he graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in New York City in the early 1950s and won a dance award and a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet, which was affiliated with the New York City Ballet. The year before he graduated, Lester Horton, the first major black dancer in America, died of a heart attack at the young age of 47, and part of the reason was that Horton had worked practically around the clock since 1932 creating dance companies to help promote African-American dancers.

In 1954 Mitchell performed in the musical House of Flowers, alongside Geoffrey Holder, Alvin Ailey, and Pearl Bailey. The following year, he made his debut as the first African American with the New York City Ballet, and remained its only African-American dancer until 1970. George Balanchine created, among other works for him, the pas de deux in Agon for Mitchell and white ballerina Diana Adams. Although Mitchell danced this role with white partners throughout the world, he couldn’t perform it on commercial television in America before 1965, because network affiliates in Southern states refused to carry it.

As mentioned, the video begins with one of the most intriguing and creative American ballets ever staged, Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, based on the gruesome story of Lizzie Borden. Like Horton’s own staging of Salome and, later, The Beloved, Fall River Legend falls into the category that Horton described as a “choreodrama.” What this means is that the ballet does not merely have a story line, to be danced to in a general emotional way, but a very specific and dramatically charged plot in which the dancers must also act. In addition to dancing, they need to be able to emote and interact in a way generally required only of actors. De Mille (1905–93), a professional dancer and the niece of the famed film director, had choreographed Rodeo for Aaron Copland in 1942. She also staged the ballet sequences in Oklahoma, which ended up being her only major screen credit, in 1955.

Both the dancing and acting in Fall River Legend are extraordinary. Virginia Johnson, as Lizzie, gives one the full range of emotions going through her mind. The ballet begins with Borden being sentenced to death for the murders (which actually never happened—there was insufficient evidence, and Borden was released), then proceeds through a series of flashbacks to her childhood, in which the coldness of her parents, and their penchant for talking behind her back, were mitigating factors that eventually drove her insane. Lizzie as a child is danced by Joselli Audain, now an associate professor of dance at Eastern University. Audain joined the company in 1978. If one assumes that she was a baby ballerina at the time, say perhaps eight or nine years old, that would have made her 18 or 19 at the time this performance was given, but her short stature made her a perfect choice to play Lizzie as a young girl. Both Audain and Johnson are superb going up on pointe, and further, Johnson’s long legs and perfect extension give her a remarkable stage presence, even when dancing in an ankle-length satin skirt.

The figure of Lizzie’s stepmother, in particular, becomes a sort of bête noir to the young woman as she grows up. The stepmother is always eyeing her suspiciously, indicating to friends and family behind Lizzie’s back that the girl is crazy, later taking would-be suitors aside and warning them against her own stepdaughter. One begins to understand the reasons for Borden’s plunge into insanity. It is, perhaps, not coincidental that de Mille’s ballet was created around the same time that a film like Gaslight was popular.

An interesting character in this “choreodrama” is the Pastor, who was also one of Lizzie’s would-be suitors. He, apparently, was somewhat immune to the stepmother’s warnings, always being kind and solicitous toward Lizzie; but the young woman, seeing her stepmother pull him aside and whisper in his ear, immediately became suspicious of his motives as well. Stephanie Dabney is excellent in the role of the stepmother and Lowell Smith outstanding as the Pastor. Toward the end of the ballet, a bit of artistic license is taken by the film crew, slowing down a few moments of the ballet onscreen to enhance the dreamlike qualities of Lizzie’s flashbacks. I am not bothered by this; for once, I find it appropriate, but some viewers may not care for it.

Troy Game, choreographed by Robert North in 1974, was conceived for six male dancers who engage in machismo, sports, and body-building, but when he reworked it for the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1979 he expanded it to 17 dancers. In the introduction, North explains how he and his dancers wanted to leaven the macho posturing with a little self-deprecating humor. For me, this is the most engaging feature of this dance.

I must say, however, that it’s highly unusual to have any ballet compiled just for the male corps, and Mitchell’s dancers run the gamut from highly athletic to airy spinners. At one point, the men form a human pyramid, but the man on the bottom puts his fingers to his lips to warn the audience to say nothing while he crawls out from under the pyramid! At another point, the humor arises from the others trying to stop just one dancer from shaking his booty. Eventually they stop all but his head. There is one dance for a solo member of the corps in which he spins like a top. But overall, Troy Game wears on me fairly quickly, since it is a lot of male posturing and I lose interest in that after a while. Despite the use of yoga and aikido positions, a lot of Troy Game looks like a superannuated floor exercise in gymnastics.

Next comes Horton’s famous drama-dance The Beloved, based on a real story he had read in a newspaper. For this production, the costumes are pushed back in time from the 1940s to the turn of the 20th century. The plot concerns a minister who suspects his wife of cheating on him, and kills her. In real life, the minister used a Bible to beat her to death. In the ballet, he strangles her. It is interesting to see and hear the dancers in this piece, Cassandra Phifer and Hughes Magen, talk about their reactions to performing it. Phifer admits she was “very uncomfortable” about doing this piece because they are friends, yet she was somewhat frightened when Magen first started “choking” her; she was afraid he might forget himself and hurt her. Magen laughs and says that he did think briefly about that, but for him it was just acting, and he would never actually hurt her. But as a woman, I can fully understand how Phifer felt uncomfortable about this. Magen’s superior strength might well have hurt her, even unintentionally. Their dancing and acting of the roles is superb, particularly those moments when Magen, as the minster, drags his wife around the stage by her hair. It is tricky enough having Magen pretend to be grabbing Phifer by the hair, but even more amazing the way Phifer appears as if she were floating around him, but actually using fast, small steps under cover of her floor-length skirt.

Mitchell returns to introduce his own choreography, John Henry, and explains that the last thing he wanted to do was to produce a “downer” in which the hero’s death negatively affects the audience. He achieved this by framing the legend of John Henry as a story-song presented to the community by a storyteller, in this case singer Leon Bibb, in which members of the group are assigned roles in the story. In this way, the Henry legend becomes simply a metaphor for pushing yourself beyond what you think your limits are when necessary. At the end, after John Henry’s death, the dancer who plays him gets up and joins the company in a celebratory final dance. Eddie J. Shellman is outstanding as Henry, Yvonne Hall stunning as his girlfriend/wife, and the entire corps ends up the dance with a sort of super square dance.

The extras in this DVD are the introductions to each ballet, and are incorporated into the main body of the film, not as separate menu items. Nevertheless, it is interesting to hear the artists talk about their work. It is obvious that Mitchell instilled real pride and hard work into them; as he had said to Balanchine, “You always taught me that if you do anything, you do it as perfectly as you can or you don’t do it at all.” This has been the guiding principle of the Dance Theatre of Harlem since its inception, and it is no less evident in this fascinating slice of time.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Fall River Legend by Morton Gould
Conductor:  Markus Lehtinen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; USA 
Troy Game by Bob Downes
Conductor:  David Lamarche
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
The Beloved by Judith Hamilton
Conductor:  David Lamarche
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
John Henry by Milton Rosenstock
Performer:  Leon Bibb (Voice)
Conductor:  Milton Rosenstock

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