Dance Theater of Harlem

'The Four Temperaments' and 'St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet'

by Holly Messitt

July 8, 2003 -- New York State Theater, New York

The Dance Theatre of Harlem arrived at The New York State Theatre on July 8 with the world premiere of "St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet."   Artistic director Arthur Mitchell hopes it will become a company signature piece, and it lived up to the grand expectations it generated.

The extravaganza event featured the music of Harold Arlen and lyrics of Johnny Mercer with choreography by Michael Smuin. Inspired by Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps's novel "God Sends Sunday," the story is one of power, betrayal, death, and the triumph of love.

Caroline Rocher's luxurious dancing as Della Green, the town heart-throb, captures the kind of glamour for which the original 1946 movie concept strove (Lena Horne was slated for the role, although she never actually played it). As two men -- big-man Biglow Brown (Donald Williams) and top jockey Little Augie (Ikolo Griffin) -- vie for her attention, Rocher spins, dips and plays the vixen. She dances with Williams to a tango rhythm, at one point wrapping her body around his and pausing with her head at his ankle and her feet at his head. Ultimately, though, she falls in love with Little Augie after his impressive solo of dazzling triple turns.

Tai Jimenez floated through her role as Lila, Biglow Brown'ss rejected girlfriend. In an evocative moment in 'I Had Myself a True Love,' her body hovered mid-air as she placed her hands on Williams' waist -- a grasping effort to hold on to the man she loved -- and he spun her.

Antonio Douthit's portrayal of Death, a character absent from both the original Broadway production and the novel, provided the story with an undercurrent of foreboding. He executed magnificent leaps as he moved across the stage, invisible to the other characters, foreshadowing Biglow's destruction and downfall. In one of the most memorable movements of the evening, Douthit danced with six women, Death's Acolytes, who were dressed in black and gold lingerie with their hair loose and wild. During their lifts the women danced with legs open around Douthit's waist or neck, openly suggesting a connection between aggressive sexuality and death.

Exuberant performances came from Melissa Morrissey and Preston Dugger as bar patrons Butterfly and Barney, who performed daring and technically difficult partnered jumps with ease. In one, Dugger threw Morrissey into the air and caught her as she performed a mid-air split. They even had some fun with the dance as Dugger wrapped his body around Morrissey's mid-section and she spun him.

Most of the action took place in Biglow Brown's bar. Tony Walton's set design was almost certainly inspired by the paintings of Henri Matisse. With its flame motif framing the set and the starry night seen through the window behind the slopping bar, as well as its bright midnight blues and the passionate reds and oranges, his set conjured Matisse's 'Icarus' and 'The Dance.' Willa Kim's costumes -- 1940s-style suits for the men and flowing dresses for the women -- followed the same bright color scheme as the set.

Also on the program was George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," a shaky and angular performance -- danced mostly by the company's corps dancers -- in which Douthit, Morrissey, and Paunika Jones stood out.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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