Dance Theatre of Harlem almost didn’t make it. In 2004, it took an 8-year hiatus due to financial woes.
It resurrected in 2012, and now, back stronger than ever for its fourth season, it took to the Orpheum’s stage Thursday night for an evening of exquisite ballet passionately performed and inventively choreographed.
The evening opened with “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” by Ulysses Dove, which served as the night’s most emotionally riveting piece. Subtitled “Odes to Love and Loss,” the choreographer created it for the Swedish Ballet in 1993 after the death of 13 loved ones within a short span of time.
Six dancers moved through Arvo Pärt’s haunting “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” notable for relentless, doleful bell-pealing that underscored repetitive, often religiously symbolic, movements.
In one sequence, the dancers segued through a chain of white spotlights, tenderly symbolizing how we’re all inextricably linked during our fleeting time on the planet. There was much sorrow in the piece, made all the dramatic by the frenetic pace at which the dancers moved at times, as if trying desperately to cling to their loved ones.
Next up was Dianne McIntyre’s powerful “Change,” inspired by women “black, brown and beige” and set to music by the Spelman College Glee Club.
Roundly acclaimed for her groundbreaking choreography, McIntyre created a work rich with cultural history and complex for its melding of her distinctive aesthetic with classical ballet.
Alison Stroming, Chyrstyn Fentroy and Ingrid Silva, dancers with wonderfully diverse body types, served as emblems of the strong women who helm their families, oversee their neighborhoods and marshal their communities.
Representatives of unapologetically tough matriarchs — the mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts who keep families together — the dancers were forceful, compelling and entirely commanding, often punctuating their moves with shrill, martial arts-like cries.
“In the Mirror of Her Mind” by Christopher Huggins followed, a plaintively haunting piece set to a score by Henryk Góreck.
Nayara Lopes, clad in a blood red shift, danced with Da’von Doane, Anthony Javier Savoy and Dyalin Santos, mentors of sorts, who literally elevated her to greater heights. Lopes’s gorgeous pointe work was delicate and deliberate, and her ability to contort and heave herself at her partners with such explosive grace elicited appreciative gasps and generous applause.
The evening concluded with “Return,” an enormous crowd pleaser that had the audience hooting its approval. Robert Garland choreographed it for Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 30th anniversary in 1999, and it’s a raucously happy number.
Set perfectly to music such as “Baby, Baby, Baby” by Aretha Franklin and “Superbad” by James Brown, it fused ballet with funk and showcased the melding of the two styles as an uplifting celebration of spontaneous street dance meets formal dance studio.
There was a wealth of familiar vernacular movement from the African-American experience, including, for example some exuberant Cabbage Patching.
The piece had soul — plenty of it — but then again, so did everything that Dance Theatre Harlem performed.
It was a sublime evening of dance, and when one audience member yelled, “Do it again!” it was fairly clear everyone in the Orpheum shared the sentiment.