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Dance Preview: Dance Theatre of Harlem revels in energy

Sunday, March 04, 2001

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic

Most people think Dance Theatre of Harlem is synonymous with Arthur Mitchell. There is no denying he is the heart, the soul, the driving force behind this group. He has sustained his ballet company for 32 years through financial woes, unbelievable artistic highs and two hip replacements.

Dance Theatre of Harlem

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Tickets: $18 to $55; 412-456-6666.


Even today, Mitchell continues to move at warp speed.

But few people realize he has produced a group of goodwill ambassadors. In fact, the company performs in its back yard in New York City only about two weeks out of the year.

DTH has to its credit groundbreaking tours to the Soviet Union in 1988, where it was the first American ballet company to appear, and South Africa, as the first American dance company to perform after the 30-year cultural ban was lifted. Most recently it visited Australia, Austria, Germany, Spain and China.

Principal dancer Kip Sturm recalls spending his Thanksgiving holiday in China.

"It was interesting," he says. "In Beijing, things were more traditional. They were renovating the theater and there was a problem with the heating -- you could actually see your breath. Shanghai was more like New York City, more metropolitan, with a beautiful new theater. Things were more progressive, maybe because they are further away from the central government."

Sturm will be recognizable to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dance fans when he returns to perform with DTH in a Pittsburgh Dance Council presentation next weekend. He spent 10 years here with the ballet, rising to the rank of soloist before joining DTH as a principal in 1998.

Sturm continues to nurture his Pittsburgh ties. During the past two summers, he has returned to Pittsburgh to choreograph for the young contemporary ballet company, The Move, and recently choreographed a piece for Playhouse Dance Company.

He is part of a large contingent of dancers DTH will showcase on this trip, the company's first Dance Council performance in five years. Heading the contingent is Kellye Saunders, a 15-year veteran with DTH, its current prima ballerina and a frequent partner with Sturm.

Saunders received her dance training in Washington, D.C., then studied for several years in the south of France before deciding to come back to the United States. She then chose to take some classes at DTH.

"Mr. Mitchell offered me an apprenticeship," she says, "and I never auditioned anywhere again. I was 18. It was here at DTH that I grew up and started my adulthood."

She is one of the few in the company who appeared in Pittsburgh the last time, then as Kellye Gordon, prior to her marriage.

"It was very easy for so long," Saunders says of her DTH experience. "The veteran dancers took it upon themselves to guide me in my career. Just a few years ago, I realized that I have to do the same thing."

As Sturm explains, "It can be very tough, very demanding. We have to, even out of the studio, represent Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mr. Mitchell always wants the best."

The two often appear together in "The Firebird," a signature work for the Harlem company that will be performed in Pittsburgh. Choreographed by John Taras, it benefits from Geoffrey Holder's exotic scenic and costume design, which takes the story out of the Russian forest and transplants it to a tropical forest in the Caribbean.

Saunders calls it her favorite version. But this "Firebird" holds a special place in her dancing heart for another reason: "It was my first real principal role with the company in 1991. But I also feel like it's very powerful, so full of energy. The audience members sit on the edge of their seats for three quarters of it."

Even though Saunders has been performing the role for 10 years, she still revels in the dynamics of it. "I keep it fresh and new and energetic, because out of 999 people, there may be one person who has not seen this ballet before. So I always do the Firebird as if it is my first time."

Another ballet on the program is George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments." Sturm performed the "Sanguinic" section with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and still performs it with DTH, but with a different accent. As Saunders notes, "Mr. Mitchell tells us to emphasize, as Mr. Balanchine told him, the jazzy aspect, because it's not strictly classical like 'Swan Lake' or 'Giselle.'"

"Jazzy" will be the operative word in "Return," a work choreographed by Robert Garland and set to music by popular artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

"The minute the music comes on, it's instant recognition," says Saunders. "Before we even move, it's party time. There are modern-day social dances and classic ballet in a mishmash, but [the program] is a real crowd pleaser."

Sturm performs Franklin's "I Love You." He is one of three men who pursue a woman. "I'm the one who wins," he says, "because I know all the right moves."

Mitchell wants everyone in DTH to be a winner. As Saunders says, "One of the main things for Mr. Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem is the importance of being a total artist. Dancing is not just about the turns or the height of a leg, it's what you give to the audience.

"If you close your eyes, you can think like Mr. Mitchell. It rubs off."

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