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Tetley, Too : Harlem Dancers Try Robbins' 'Fancy Free'

May 15, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music/Dance Critic

Lincoln Kirstein, the visionary and conscience of American ballet, was blunt about it back in 1970: "Fancy Free," he wrote, "remains the sturdiest characteristic national work" in our repertory.

Not the most profound or the most subtle or the most demanding, mind you, but the sturdiest.

Jerome Robbins' snazzy-jazzy calling card, with its high-jinky sailors-on-leave miniplot, its politely funky score by Leonard Bernstein, and its barroom glitz set by Oliver Smith, has weathered four decades nicely.

It has engendered its own Broadway and Hollywood spinoff, "On the Town." Despite epochal vicissitudes, the amorous saga of the three competitive terpsichorean tars continues to function as a staple in the American Ballet Theatre diet. And now it now turns up, from time to happy time, on bills of the New York City Ballet.

Monday night, to the delight of an audience that filled only a third of Pasadena Civic Auditorium, "Fancy Free" entered the domain of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The original sets and costumes were impeccably reproduced. Sara Leland was brought in to preach the Robbins gospel. Milton Rosenstock and his pit band boogied and woogied con brio on behalf of good old Lenny.

For all the inherent fidelity, however, the Harlem company did not approach the ballet as if it were a sacred relic. The dancers respected the basic outlines, and filled in the colors their way. The result, thank goodness, was no dutiful restoration of a prized antique but a fresh, vital and sometimes illuminating reevaluation.

The Harlem dancers tone down Robbins' balletic maneuvers. Their "Fancy Free" tends to be a little bit jumbled and jivey. There certainly are no danseurs nobles on a slumming expedition here. The virtuosic feats, in this context, look less showy than usual, more natural, and just as winning.

One can note a few losses, to be sure. The current cast doesn't expend much effort defining individuals. Confronting roles designed for such specific personalities as Harold Lang, John Kriza and Robbins himself, the Harlem trio deals in interpretive generalities.

Cubie Burke's all-out bravado is adorable. So is Tyrone Brooks' lyrical mock-raunch. So is Donald Williams' quasi-Latino bravura. The viewer can't tell at a glance, however, which sailor is the macho pseudo-brute, which is the young smoothie and which the deceptively shy one.

The girls passing by seem a bit bland, too. Terri Tompkins (the one with the pocket book), Christina Johnson (the one with the newspaper) and Theara Ward (the one who comes in last but not least) could all be cut from the same, friendly, pretty, ladylike cloth.

Never mind. There will be time for refocusing. Harlem has found a congenial new challenge, one that it can meet with vigor and admirable finesse. The cumulative spirits already are high, the momentum is contagious, the innocent '40s style doesn't look dated even in the supposedly sophisticated '80s, the team work is gutsy and the dancing, all around, is terrific.

"Fancy Free" didn't turn out to be the only novelty on the cramped Pasadena stage. The program found its centerpiece--and a splendid one--in Glen Tetley's "Voluntaries," which entered the Harlem repertory in 1984 but until now had been performed in Los Angeles only by Ballet Theatre.

Designed for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1973, "Voluntaries" is Tetley's homage to John Cranko: a taut, climactic fusion of classical techniques and modern maneuvers, a rather slick exploration of possible variations on body-symbols of grief, an exhaustive ode to the elongated arabesque.

The Harlem dancers--led with passionate discipline by Yvonne Hall, Augustus van Heerden, Joseph Cipolla, Sephanie Dabney and Donald Williams--stretched and darted through their abstract mazes with strength and conviction. Rouben Ter-Arutunian's familiar speckled-circle back-cloth looked a bit wan, but the Poulenc Concerto made a glorious, supportive noise as played on the mighty house organ by Barbara Poper and conducted by Boyd Staplin.

Less imposing was the curtain-raiser: "Swan Lake," Act II, as staged--rather eccentrically--by Frederic Franklin in 1980. Virginia Johnson was the lovely yet pallid Odette, Eddie J. Shellman her stilted Prince, Joseph Cipolla a Benno allotted an irrelevant, anachronistic, military variation. The 16 subsidiary swans, who wore long tutus while the queen sported a short one, danced forcefully. Poetry seemed to elude everyone.

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