Dance Theatre of Harlem, Sadler's Wells, London

Indian chiefs pirouette downhill fast
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The Independent Culture

Dance Theatre of Harlem was the world's first black ballet company, and it's salutary to find that almost four decades later it's still a novelty - in Britain at least - to see black dancers on pointe. DTH was bowled over by the response to its brief UK visit two years ago, so now it's back for an eight-venue tour. And how very fine its women look in the opening of Balanchine's Serenade, the 1934 landmark ballet that rarely fails to draw audible sighs of pleasure when the curtain goes up on ranks of gauzy white skirts.

Those Harlem ballerinas have glamour, and buckets of it. They have limbs like gazelles and smiles that could torch the back row. Too bad the company didn't open with its all-Balanchine show, instead showing its stylistic range with Serenade, a snippet of English exotica, and a lurid 20th-century victim-drama. It went from good to middling to dire.

The best happened in the ensemble sections of the Balanchine, the floor patterns scissored out with such exuberant exactitude that they seemed the only possible response to Tchaikovsky's weaving strings. If the music must be taped - which is a pity - surely it's possible to find a performance that sounds less like something transmitted through a woolly sock. The fuzz persisted into Massenet's music for Frederick Ashton's Thaïs, a five-minute duet clearly added as a last-minute makeweight.

Sir Fred might not have recognised much of the work he conceived in the art nouveau spirit of Pavlova. Harlem's Melissa Morrissey floated prettily enough, bourréeing so smoothly you'd think she was being pulled on a string, and she managed the carnal gymnastics well, coolly mounting Kip Sturm's back as if he were a boat. But I remained untouched by the mimed rapture.

Michael Smuin's Song For Dead Warriors, an extravagantly staged series of vignettes about the miserable and violent fate of Native Americans, went to the other extreme, taking a sledgehammer to crack one buffalo skull after another. And while it was tempting to cheer the mounting tally of naturalistic effects - snorting horses adding to Charles Fox's portentous score, a herd of model cattle, a horribly convincing scalping - the muddle of symbolism, soapy realism and pirouetting Indian chiefs had me scurrying for the exit with relief.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

DTH: Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000), to Sat; and touring

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