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Dance Theater of Harlem honors the 'other' Nijinsky

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP, UPI Senior Editor

NEW YORK -- The Dance Theater of Harlem is marking its 20th anniversary with an engagement at the City Center Theater that includes a dazzling salute to Nijinsky's neglected sister, choreographer Branislava Nijinska.

The company founded by Arthur Mitchell has resurrected two of Nijinska's masterworks, 'Les Noces' (1923) to music by Poulenc and 'Les Biches' (1924) to Stravinsky's music, and a minor work, 'Rondo Capriccioso' 1952, to a Saint-Saens score.

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'Les Biches' entered the company's repertory six years ago but 'Les Noces' and 'Rondo Capriccioso' are new this season andcan be seen at City Center through Sunday. Nijinska's daughter, Irina, has supervised all three revivals.

These ballets represent a challenge to the company's grasp of classical style, which has matured and expanded over the years under Mitchell's determined direction but lacks a final overall gloss.

The Harlem dancers approach Nijinska with all the verve and individual charm that has conquered audiences across the United States and around the world in the course of the company's many tours including a 1988 tour of Russia, Nijinska's native land.

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Sister of the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, Nijinska was a product of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and joined Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe in Paris in 1909. She returned to Russia to teach during World War I and rejoined Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo in 1921 as a choreographer who revitalized classic ballet by introducing a theatrical, stylized mode.

Nijinska spent the rest of her life choreographing for scores of companies in Europe and North and South America. She enjoyed a spate of retrospectives and revivals of her post-classical works in the 1960s but they have been generally neglected since her death in California in 1979.

This is the first all-Nijinska program to be presented since then. In the hands of the Dance Theater of Harlem, Nijinska's choreography seems as fresh, witty, and casually romantic as it must have seemed when it was premiered.

'Les Biches' has all the surface glitter of the flapper era that makes the shallow sophistication of the 1920s eternally fascinating to succeeding generations.

Concerning a bevy of young girls -- the young female deer of the title -- living in a villa on the French Riviera, 'Les Biches' walks a narrow line between innocence and corruption. The girls may be prostitutes. Two of them may be lesbians. A trio of male athletes may be patrons or just playmates.

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Is this good clean fun or a cynical look at parvenu society, as it was then and still is today?

Francesca Harper is marvelous as the pearl-twirling hostess who shows maternal concern for her little deers while playing the vamp. Virginia Johnson turns in the best dance performance as the alluringly aloof woman in white gloves. Robert Garland, Eddie J. Shellman, and Marck Waymmann amuse as the narcissistic muscle men.

Recreations of Marie Laurencin's original 'Les Biches' curtain, sets, and plumed costumes in her typical pastel palette, add to the richness and pleasure of this work.

'Rondo Capriccioso, which Nijinska choreographed at the end of her career for the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet as a vehicle for American ballerina Rosella Hightower, is essentially a pas de deux. Two other characters are added to maneuver the pink chiffon scarf in which the Hightower character, the Bird of Paradise, is trapped.

This is a second-rate 'Firebird' but the virtuoso lead is danced by Stephanie Dabney very grandly indeed. There is a brittleness in Dabney's movements that may give way to a sensuous elegance in time, but she is altogether believable as the distracted, hand-fluttering bird that is both attracted to and beware of the hunter prince, danced somewhat woodenly by Ronald Perry.

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Hightower, who teaches dance in France, assisted Nijinska in staging 'Rondo Capriccioso,' making it a truly authentic revival.

Howard Sayette, ballet master of the Oakland (Calif.) Ballet which was the first American company to dance 'Les Noces,' has assisted Nijinska in staging the ballet about a peasant wedding at the beginning of the Christian era in Russia.

Again, the effective original sets and costumes in bold pagan patterns, this time by Russian modernist Nathalie Goncharova, have been recreated.

Although there are no starring roles in 'Les Noces,' Lorraine Graves is outstanding as the somber bride and Bernard McClain turns in an attractively impulsive performance as the bridegroom. The corps de ballet is emphasized in several dramatic groupings that represent the progressive rituals of marriage, from the braiding of the bride's hair to the wedding feast.

In 'Les Biches' and 'Les Noces' there is choreographic invention that was revolutionary in the 1920s -- abrupt turns, torso twists, and angular carriage of the arms. This is no longer startling but it is still fresh. The Dance Theater of Harlem is to be congratulated for bringing us proof that Nijinska was one of the pivotal dance innovators of the 20th century.

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