BECKET — At Jacob’s Pillow on Wednesday night, the full house was giddily abuzz. Yes, it was opening night of the festival’s 81st season, but the palpable joy, constant throughout the evening, was largely due to the performance of Dance Theatre of Harlem, after nearly a decade on hiatus for its professional company.
The program, which continues through Sunday, includes two ballets that mark the troupe’s early legacy (“Agon” and “The Lark Ascending”); a 2012 piece planted firmly in the now (“Far but Close”); and, as if to prove that the company can do it all, two fun enough but superfluous dances (an excerpt from “Swan Lake” and Robert Garland’s 1999 boogie-down number “Return”).
In recent interviews, Virginia Johnson, a longtime star of the company and now its artistic director, has been transparent about the need to fill the ranks with some less experienced performers. If that varied maturity resulted in an unevenness of stamina, both physically and artistically, the dancers nonetheless exuded an eagerness and sincerity that often blossomed into charming earnestness.
Even so, the four men in George Balanchine’s “Agon,” set to the great Igor Stravinsky score, had professionalism enough not only to survive a sound miscue at the very beginning but to proceed to dance with a quiet, exacting largesse. First the clarity of the men’s ballon — oh! Those huge, bounding sissonnes! Then the entrance of the eight females, whose brightly lifted retirés etched a trail of afterimages about the stage.
When “Agon” premiered in 1957, the central pas de deux was performed by Diana Adams and Dance Theatre of Harlem cofounder Arthur Mitchell, a pointedly “mixed-race” couple. This now cool, now tense wrangle of a duet was performed on Wednesday by two people of color — Gabrielle Salvatto, coy yet queenly, and Fredrick Davis, cloaked in melancholic anxiety — but Johnson may be winking slyly at us by putting the “Black Swan” pas de deux on the program, and casting as Prince Siegfried Samuel Wilson, who is white, and as Odile Michaela DePrince, who is black. In any event, though these two shine with youthful attack and promise, the inclusion of what is usually a gala confection came across less as a swan than as a duck out of water.
Similarly, Alvin Ailey’s 1972 “The Lark Ascending,” a lyrically impressionistic dance set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s famously haunting composition, strikes a slightly off note, now that the six women have been put on pointe. This has been announced proudly: that Dance Theatre of Harlem is the first American troupe to perform “Lark” in pointe shoes, as if it had always been meant to be. The piece is generously infused with ballet steps, but dancing it on pointe makes the other movement styles — the dashes of Graham, Horton, and Limón — look unnatural and, at times, even awkward.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the company’s young dancers seemed most comfortable in the most recent dance, John Alleyne’s “Far but Close,” set to a contemporary score by Daniel Bernard Roumain with sassy, spoken-word text by Daniel Beaty. Both the scenario — four urbanites warily circling intimacy — and the sharp-edged, restlessly paced choreography have a familiarity that speaks of truth.
That said, I hope Johnson won’t veer away from the past, in this age that often applauds “tricks” as art. There were moments on opening night that proved that more is not better. A higher leg isn’t more; it’s just higher, and getting it there is often achieved at the sacrifice of musicality and, of course, artistry. There is much to rejoice about these young dancers, but one hopes that, in these heady first days of the important, anticipated, desired, necessary return of Dance Theatre of Harlem, a deep breath will allow room for training and coaching these dancers in the good old-fashioned way: with practice, practice, practice.