DanceView Times, New York edition
A Revised St. Louis Woman, and the Return of Alicia Graf
Once a ballerina, always a ballerina—or so it seemed when Alicia Graf swept onstage as the "angel" figure in Serenade in her return to Dance Theatre of Harlem after what her program bio calls a "four-year hiatus." Her imposing presence, innate elegance and technical aplomb were immediately apparent when she first surfaced as an 18-year-old in such roles as the Siren in Prodigal Son, and she has lost none of her allure while pursuing a history degree at Columbia and holding several internships. She has a ways to go to gain back full strength; she held the high arabesque, during which she is promenaded by an "invisible" partner, beautifully, but her descent from it was not altogether smooth, and there was a similarly muddied moment during the final "Elegie" section. But she claimed the stage with that muted glamour and quiet sophistication which make so many of DTH's women so special.
The company's Serenade, even with taped music (which was of a higher caliber, with brisk tempos, than most recordings one has to endure at dance performances) presented a glorious vision of a unique sisterhood. The ensemble's awareness of, and graciousness toward, each other, was touching, and their dancing had a bracing vigor crossed with just the right touch of mystery. Lenore Pavlakos tried a bit too hard to be ingratiating as the "Waltz" woman, smiling out at the audience all the time, and her glitter-dusted eye shadow seemed excessive for this role. Akua Parker, a bold, forceful dancer, sailed along on the brisk rhythms of the "Russian" girl's main section. Kip Sturm performed his partnering duties modestly and efficiently, while Antonio Douthit—last summer's exciting DTH newcomer who made a fascinating impact as "Phlegmatic"—brought an intriguing level of shading to a role (the man who appears for the "Elegie") that can often seem stolid.
The main event at this NJPAC performance—and the work that is DTH's primary calling card for its upcoming tours— is the hour-long St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet (as the company insists on titling it), considerably revised since its Lincoln Center festival premiere. Based on the 1946 Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical and choreographed by Michael Smuin, it is big, splashy and colorful, presenting a story of overlapping love and lust, jealousy and retribution. An audience pleaser, yes (and the Newark audience clearly appreciated it), but one that depends on dancing rather than gimmicks, and it receives impassioned, exciting performances from its large cast. It doesn't hurt that the Arlen score (arranged and augmented by Joseph Fields) is a rich, luscious treat—ranging from sassy to mournful, from passionate to teasing. Several of the score's terrific songs (which have become standards despite the musical quick fade-out on Broadway) are sung, and others are heard in purely orchestrated versions. The score, even with its frequent shifts in mood, feels seamless.
In addition to the four central characters taken from the musical's plot, Smuin adds a death figure—a slinky, all-knowing interlocutor figure in black vest and hot pants, spats and top hat. This figure (danced brilliantly and without excessive melodrama by Douthit) was problematic at the premiere, suggesting a level of doom that the actual plot does not support. One character—and a shady one at that—is killed, but otherwise everyone ends up happy. In the present version (here performed to a recording, but in some tour cities it will have live orchestra and vocalists) Death appears before any of the other characters is introduced, as if to suggest a dark cloud hangs over the Rocking Horse Club, where the action is set, when actually it's a vibrant gathering place for jockeys, racing enthusiasts, gamblers, and various hangers-on. He orchestrates certain encounters and appears out of the shadows at certain key moments.
Smuin draws attention to him too often and too insistently. But once the other characters begin to assert themselves, the action gets more balanced. The two central female characters were danced to the hilt: Caroline Rocher was both playful and sultry as the title character, a come-hither vamp to whom men are drawn and whose credo is announced in the song "Anywhere I Hang My Hat is Home." Her costume (Willa Kim designed the tropical-colored, stretchy and sexy 1940s-inspired wardrobe) emphasizes her curves, but she radiates hauteur as well as sexiness. Tai Jimenez had the purer role, as the devoted and uncomprehending Lila who is spurned by her tough, threatening boyfriend once he catches sight of Rocher.
Smuin has on several occasions showed flair when working in a Broadway setting, and in this ballet-meets Broadway venture, his rich array of duets are the heart of St. Louis Woman. He makes fine use of the DTH dancers' tautly stretched bodies and classical grace, yet introduces plenty of jazzy inflections and spicing it all with challenging and inventive lifts that suit the characters. Donald Williams and Rocher's tango-inflected mutual seduction, and his later tossing aside of a pleading Jimenez, were danced to the hilt. In a sunnier vein was the duet in which Rocher shifts her affections to the high-flying, sweet-tempered jockey (Ikolo Griffin). The wittiest duet is for the secondary characters portrayed by the delightful Melissa Morrissey and Preston Dugger, who performed with deft timing and finesse.
A new duet now takes place during the transitional sequence, in front of a drop curtain, that bridges the extensive Rocking Horse Club activity and the quick, upbeat finale at the racetrack. Gone is the Nicholas Brothers-style tap dance that was performed by two bartender characters when the work premiered, as well as the inexplicable and tacky sequence in which death danced lugubriously with four bizarrely-clad acolytes. The interlude now begins with a brief funeral procession, which makes sense dramatically a references a scene in the musical. The tail end of the procession is Death carrying on a leggy partner in a black leotard (Graf, who is not mentioned in the program), with whom he then performs an extended acrobatic duet full of sinuous intertwinings and extended limbs. Because Graf and Douthit are such riveting performers, it bears watching, even if it feels a bit out of place. The dramatic purpose of the sequence is to highlight (with poses hit in the course of the duet) the various plot-advancing headlines that are spotlit on the drop curtain.
Clearly, there has been thought and consideration put into St. Louis Woman since its premiere. It does not feel tighter so much as somewhat more coherent, even though the Death character's appearances not always smoothly integrated. What this ballet does well is show off the committed, impassioned way the DTH dancers perform, and it creates a valid middle ground where the dancers get a chance to unabashedly entertain without losing their dignity and sophistication.
Copyright ©2003 by