Dancing in the Streets of Harlem, and Gathering to Dance, Merce-Style

By Marina Harss

What to watch this week: a celebratory film by Dance Theater of Harlem; “Sonic Gatherings,” inspired by Merce Cunningham Events; and a Mark Morris masterpiece.

From left, Daphne Lee, Amanda Smith, Lindsey Donnell and Alexandra Hutchinson in “Dancing Through Harlem,” which features excerpts of Robert Garland’s “New Bach.”
From left, Daphne Lee, Amanda Smith, Lindsey Donnell and Alexandra Hutchinson in “Dancing Through Harlem,” which features excerpts of Robert Garland’s “New Bach.”Credit...Screen grab

Something many films of dance fail to convey is the rush produced by the happy marriage of music and movement. A recent movie by two dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem — Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson — is an exception.

“Dancing Through Harlem,” created for the yearly Harlem Week festival and the African-American Day Parade, is both a tribute to the neighborhood in which it was filmed and a celebration of pure dance. In the early mornings over three days Mr. Brockington and Ms. Hutchinson filmed themselves and six colleagues performing excerpts from “New Bach,” by the company’s resident choreographer, Robert Garland.

Mr. Garland deftly combines the crisp rhythms of Bach with sharp footwork, jazzy syncopations, and hints of West African dance and the Harlem Shake. The dancers in turn take the choreography out into the streets: to a subway platform at St. Nicholas Avenue, a courtyard among the neo-Gothic buildings of the City College of New York, and out in front of the colorful murals around the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building. Dance has never looked more alive.

ImageBrandon Collwes, upper left, in a rehearsal for “Sonic Gathering XIX.”
Brandon Collwes, upper left, in a rehearsal for “Sonic Gathering XIX.”Credit...Sonic Gathering

Every Wednesday, Brandon Collwes, a former Merce Cunningham dancer, meets up with two or three other dancers on Zoom to dance. These live performances, or “Sonic Gatherings,” are loosely inspired by Cunningham’s “Events” — one-time, site-specific dances made up of a patchwork of choreographic material.

Anyone can watch. Some of the choreography is preset by Mr. Collwes, but the other participants also bring ideas. It’s a collective endeavor. The music, too, is cooked up on the spot by the experimentalist John King and various collaborators. And because they can all see each other each dancer is able react to what the others are doing in real time.

“It feels like we’re really performing with each other, which is what we all miss so much,” Mr. Collwes said. Or, as New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns, who took part in a “Sonic Gathering” a few weeks back, put it in an email, “I danced for 25 minutes straight, and I felt alive.” You can register here to be in the virtual audience.

The Mark Morris Dance Group in a scene from “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” filmed in 2014.Credit...Elaine Mayson

If you’re starved for joy, I can recommend a dance of distilled beauty and touching grandeur: Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato” (1988). This full-length work, set to Handel’s oratorio of the same name, has humor, humanity and sophisticated musicality, all expressed with what looks like breezy simplicity. One passage consists of lines of dancers walking with measured steps in geometric patterns around the stage to the lilting duet “As Steals the Morn Upon the Night.” In 2014, “L’Allegro” was filmed for Great Performances, and that film — with its pastel scrims and costumes and cool lighting — is being streamed until Sept. 7 on the website of the WQXR radio station. There’s a good chance it will lift your spirit.

From left, Connor Walsh, Chae Eun Yang and Chandler Dalton in Trey McIntyre’’s “The Call,” streaming on FLTPK.Credit...Trey McIntyre

For the adventurous, the choreographer Trey McIntyre has created a new platform to distribute original video dances called FLTPK. (The name refers to a flat pack, a way to pack furniture in flat boxes, as at Ikea.) People who sign up for it receive two video dances per month, fresh off the conveyor belt and access to all that’s on the site. The idea is that if lots of people buy in, the choreographers and dancers, most of them freelancers with little work at the moment, might actually make some money.

So far, the site includes three dances by Mr. McIntyre, the most winning of which is “The Call,” a clever piece that uses animation and a trompe l’oeil effect to create the illusion of the outdoors morphing with the indoors. The next film, by the Los Angeles choreographer Mike Tyus, drops on Sept. 4. Other participating choreographers lined up include Cathy Marston from Britain and the New York-based Yin Yue.

Wendy Whelan, top left, teaching a Ballet Together class last week.Credit...via Ballet Together

One consequence of all the dance classes that have popped up online is that barriers to dance classes, both geographic and financial, have broken down. In April, Bridget Webb, a Seattle resident with a background in human resources and a daughter who missed her ballet classes, saw the potential. Reaching out to the local dance community, she began to build the network that would become Ballet Together.

Now the teachers on the site include dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, the Royal Danish Ballet and more. The students log in from Aruba, Bulgaria, Guatemala, Israel and elsewhere. The online Zoom classes are pay what you want; you can give nothing, or as much as you like. (Many of the American instructors are on furlough from their companies because of the pandemic, so this is a source of income.) You can request private lessons, too.

The other day, I took a morning class with Wendy Whelan, the associate artistic director of New York City Ballet. “Remember,” she reminded us at one point, “ballet is an advanced kind of walking; you’re either on one leg or the other.”

There were about 60 students, serious-looking kids wearing leotards and middle-aged people like me padding around their living rooms in oversized T-shirts. Among the participants was a class beaming in from Lagos, Nigeria, the pupils neatly arranged along two outdoor ballet barres. Ms. Webb has developed a strong link with several schools in Nigeria and is expanding into Kenya and Ghana.

Ms. Whelan teaches again on Friday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern; the full schedule of classes, which include various workouts, highland dance, and Afro-fusion, is at ballettogether.com.