Harlem dance troupe mixes spice, fascination
Scanning the current repertory of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which performs at the New York City Center through Feb. 25, one might confuse the group with the old Ballet Russe that crisscrossed America in the 1930s and '40s. The Harlem company is doing those trustworthy warhorses ''Scheherazade'' and Act II of ''Swan Lake''; stagings of Russian classics by Ballet Russe stars Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin; the ever-popular ''Graduation Ballet''; and a once-notorious spoof on American morals, ''Frankie and Johnny,'' which had the distinction of being censored in the 1930s.
As an antidote to the time warp, one can still find in the company's repertory a solid chunk of Balanchine ballets. Furthermore, the major new production of the season is not a throwback to the Ballet Russe, but the unveiling of an underground European classic. The ballet is ''Les Biches,'' created for the Diaghilev company in 1924 by Bronislava Nijinska, sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. With a score by Poulenc and decor by Marie Laurencin, the ballet represents the chic avant-garde of its time.
What makes the choreography avant-garde in contemporary terms is that it comments on the chic of its time. ''Les Biches,'' translated as ''The Does,'' is a loosely episodic comedy of manners taking place in an elegant salon. The assembled guests include a bevy of debs wearing the latest fashions, three muscular athletes in tight shorts and shirts, a mysteriously stern woman in short tunic and cropped hairdo, a social belle with reams of pearls on her neck and men at her side, and two teeny-boppers who are the very best of friends.
The situation is enigmatic, because Nijinska is a master of understatement and enigma. The language is strictly classical, but the slight syncopations in the dancers' movements and the carefully chosen distortions of standard ballet posture inject strange, offbeat highlights and attitudes into this ''normal'' party.
The stilted virtuosity of the athletes is parodic and consequently undermining of the position they claim as ladies' men. But the key figure is the Garbo-type woman in the tunic, whose angular arm movements parallel perfectly the angular cut of her attire. Who is she and what does she want? Her presence is disturbing, to the audience and even to the debs in the ballet.
''Les Biches'' is a perfectly straightforward ballet (in terms of structure and vocabulary) in which nothing is as it seems and nothing is resolved. It's the contradiction between the open and closed that gives the work its spice and fascination. ''Les Biches'' is not particularly likable, but it's not supposed to be. Yet it's a must-see work for those interested in either avant-garde art or dance.
The production is less elegantly performed than it has been by Britain's Royal Ballet, but it is handled knowledgeably enough to convey the ballet's essential slipperiness.
Dance Theater of Harlem will be performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington March 1-6, West Palm Beach and Miami Beach, March 12-15, and at the Smithsonian in Washington April 6.