During an introductory segment on Friday night, Corby Skinner described Dance Theater of Harlem as "hip hop meets ballet."
Skinner nailed it in his pre-concert talk with artistic director Virginia Johnson.
The 16 dancers who wowed the crowd at the Alberta Bair Theater Friday displayed such stunning artistry and athletic strength that it seemed they could do anything. There were jaw-dropping aerial twists and splits, dizzyingly fast pirouettes, and graceful moves where the male dancers lifted the women onto their shoulders and backs.
But what really connected with the audience were the personalities of these dancers.
The first piece, “Harlem on My Mind,” a dance commissioned by the University of Wyoming, was flirtatious and sexy. Set to jazz music performed by greats like Fats Waller, The Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis and Chris Botti, the piece incorporated shoulder shimmies and wiggling hips. It was choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie and it made its world premiere on Sept. 29 in Laramie, Wyo. Dancers Anthony Santos, Amanda Smith, Da’Von Doane, Dylan Santos and Lindsey Croop really shone in the piece.
Next up was a very intimate, emotive work, “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss.” The spare but demanding choreography allowed the audience to focus on the story telling and the emotional tug of the piece.
Ulysses Dove choreographed the dance for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1993. It was during a challenging time in Dove’s life because he lost 13 close friends and relatives, including his father.
Without knowing the back story to the dance, you could still feel that sense of loss, but also the message of living in the moment, never knowing if it will be your last.
The finale of the night was the crowd-pleasing “Return,” choreographed by Robert Garland and set to music by James Brown and Aretha Franklin, among others. The moment you hear Brown’s trademark yowl, you know you’re in for something wild and special.
One of the highlights was when the dancers formed two lines and showcased improvised hip hop style moves. Skinner invited the audience to holler if they felt like it and many in the audience did. The dancers never stopped smiling and connecting with the audience.
Dancers in the touring company, which was founded by Arthur Mitchell, come from all over the world, including Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Cuba and South Korea.
A favorite of mine during the performance was Jorge Andres Villarini from Puerto Rico. He was featured on James Brown’s “Super Bad.” Villarini’s expressive eyes and fluid movement were so captivating, you couldn’t take your eyes off him when he was on stage.