BECKET — The good news is that Dance Theatre of Harlem, which reemerged last year after a nearly decade-long shutdown, is hanging in there. The disappointing news is that the triple bill the company is presenting this week at Jacob’s Pillow contains only one decent dance, while another is mediocre, and one is just awful. Back to the good news: It’s not the dancers’ fault.
Paradoxically, the strongest piece, the late Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,” is also the only one that was choreographed on another company. Dove created “Dancing” in 1993 in response to a series of deaths in his circle of friends and family. Private grief is a knotty subject to represent in art, perhaps even more so with abstract dance.
Indeed, the stylized formality of this dance — austere imagery conjuring both Martha Graham and Greek drama packed alongside daringly technical feats — at times has a whiff of mawkishness. On opening night however, the six dancers were wonderfully straightforward, pitching themselves with a dignified fearlessness into the many formidable challenges: for the women, pirouettes that open into fouettés before floating into hovered, trailing balances; for the men, jumps that land over the tops of the feet, or backward-flung capitulations into another’s arms. Though prolonged stamina continues to be lacking for this company, “Dancing” is first on the program, and the dancers, freshly out of the gate, are up to the task.
The model of “past-carry-forward,” created for the company last year by former troupe members Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis, is an intriguing one that I hope will be further explored: It’s a dance theater piece, but one that tells an African-American narrative, rather than a European fairy tale. Throughout its 45-year history, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s repertory has included story ballets such as “Firebird” and “Giselle” alongside contemporary dances (including masterworks by George Balanchine). Harlem’s “Giselle” used traditional choreography but was set in a Louisiana bayou; if it wasn’t earth-shatteringly inventive, it was at least ground-breaking, a fresh approach to potentially stale material.
Alas, though the Wideman-Davis team taps a rich vein — “past-carry-forward” explores the Great Migration of African-Americans in the early 20th century and the ensuing Harlem Renaissance, with depictions of anxious travelers, hopeful jitterbuggers, obsequious porters with private dreams — the scenes are rarely dynamic, too sketched-in to resonate deeply. Then, oddly, about halfway through, this dance full of train motifs simply wanders off track into a rambling dream sequence that is too laconic, and eventually, just too long.
Donald Byrd’s 2012 “Contested Space,” derails quickly; the dancers are given little more than tedious classroom exercises for their legs while their arms poke and wiggle quirkily — which nonetheless fails to make the movement interesting (even the quotes from Balanchine’s “Agon” don’t help). The male dancers are directed to send long “see how awesome we are” gazes out to the audience, while the females flash coyly knowing smiles. Sometimes the rotework is “spiced up” with tacky displays of hyper-flexibility. The dancers, visibly tired at this point on opening night (pas de deux work is another company frailty, and a few times in “Contested Space,” partnering maneuvers were just given up on), gamely plow on: They’re dancers! It’s what they do. But they deserve so much more.