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Reiter-soffer's 'La Mer' : Dance Theatre Of Harlem Premiere

May 18, 1985|LEWIS SEGAL | Times Dance Writer

Domy Reiter-Soffer's "La Mer" is a very solemn ballet with just one idea but many, many failings. Created four years ago for the Eddy Toussaint Dance Company of Montreal, it was performed for the first time by Dance Theatre of Harlem on an otherwise familiar program Thursday in Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

Against a luminous backdrop divided horizontally by a rippling line, Reiter-Soffer deploys four principals and a small corps in a simulation of liquid ebb and flow: ocean's motion, ballet style.

This is not the most novel or challenging theme: In the last three months alone, local audiences have been drenched in choreographic liquidity by the visiting Bejart ("Seven Greek Dances"), Panov ("La Cathedrale engloutie") and Ailey ("Collage") companies. Moreover, Doris Humphrey's 57-year-old "Water Study" remains one of the classics of modern dance.

Far from developing any new insights, Reiter-Soffer's ballet is notable only for its ruinous disassociations. The curtain rises to amplified gurgling and sloshing: the accompaniment to a solo by Donald Williams, he of the chiselled limbs and noble bearing. It's inconceivable: Dance Theatre of Harlem's prince of princes dancing to noisy plumbing. And it gets worse.

Soon Stephanie Dabney--the company's brilliant young Firebird/Swan Queen--appears, and the disparity between her proven prowess in other ballets and her meager opportunities here becomes equally glaring. Indeed, all of the women in "La Mer" except Lorraine Graves (a Sun surrogate) spend less time dancing than being lifted and hauled about. Only male fish get to swim freely in this sea.

Meanwhile, Debussy's spectacularly varied and inventive score has become doubly undercut--first by Reiter-Soffer's simplistic dances and then by the rough, feeble playing by a small ad hoc ensemble conducted by Milton Rosenstock.

The discontinuity between sight and sound is nearly complete. Unlike the music, the choreography scarcely varies in scale or density. Whether Debussy sounds delicate or mighty, Reiter-Soffer produces the same dogged traveling lifts--with each woman often spread-eagled across the man's back or held head down--or the same tepid undulations and arm-flurries.

Yes, the lighting changes dramatically, and Joseph Cipolla arrives in the last section to share major porteur duties with Williams, but as the music rises to one of the great climaxes in the orchestral repertory, Reiter-Soffer can only recapitulate arbitrary, exhausted effects. This old, gray "Mer" definitely ain't what she ought to be.

By now, Dance Theatre of Harlem has infused "Troy Game" with so much black American style that it's impossible to know what the work originally looked like when performed by a white British company at its premiere 11 years ago.

Evidently choreographed by Conan the Barbarian (though the program credits Robert North), it offers hard-sell macho and mock- macho routines interchangeably: everything from a bicep competition to a game of highly trivial pursuit, all performed to recorded Brazilian folk music.

The company has arguably outgrown this kind of beefcake showpiece--and certainly the slovenly unisons on Thursday betrayed neglect or even contempt--but only "The Firebird" gets louder screams from the Harlem public.

However, on Thursday the "Firebird" screams were clearly for Dabney's performance in the title role rather than the pallid John Taras staging. Whether displaying the fiercest bourrees in world ballet or merely turning her head while suspended above the stage on wires, Dabney ignited star ovations. Williams and Graves danced skillfully, too, as the other major characters, but the night obviously belonged to the lady in red.

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