A Homecoming for Dance Theatre of Harlem and Jenelle Figgins

Anthony Savoy and Stephanie Williams in Return
Matthew Murphy
Anthony Savoy and Stephanie Williams in Return

The return of the legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem to Washington in its debut at Harman Hall tonight, tomorrow and Saturday afternoon and evening -- Oct. 17, 18 and 19 -- is a big deal for the three participating institutions: the DTH, the Washington Performing Arts Society and CityDance.

It’s also a big deal for Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer Jenelle Figgins, who is performing in the city where she was raised, lived, studied and was inspired to become a dancer. She is an alumna of our town's own Duke Ellington School for the Arts.

The performances are two sets: “Gloria,” choreographed by Robert Garland; the world premiere of “past-carry-forward,” a new ballet by Harlem dancers Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis; and “Contested Space” by Donald Byrd, tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and “Agon,” a work by George Balanchine to music by Igor Stravinsky, first performed by DTH last year; “Far But Close” by John Alleyne; “Return,” choreographed by Robert Garland to music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown; and “Glinka Pas de Trois,” another Balanchine on Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m.

A resurgent Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded by New York City Ballet principal dancer Arthur Mitchell in the 1960s, returns to Washington under the leadership of Washington School of Ballet graduate Virginia Johnson.

The performances mark an expansion of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s dance program through a partnership with CityDance. Earlier this week, there were two lecture demonstrations on dance technique to CityDance students and other students in WPAS’s Capitol Dance programs at THEARC in Ward 8.

“This exciting partnership enables WPAS to expand our dance programming and present performances by vibrant companies and choreographers alongside meaningful learning and performance opportunities for students, a connection that is fundamental to WPAS’s mission,” said WPAS President and CEO Jenny Bilfield.

CityDance Executive Director Alexe Nowakowski said, “The partnership fulfills CityDance‘s mission to bring high-quality professional performers to the DC area and to present CityDance’s students with exposure to these artists. We’re excited to have the opportunity to bring such a celebrated company to the community.”

Jenelle Figgins is excited, too. A member of the company, she’ll be dancing in “Agon” and other parts of the programs, and she’ll be coming home as well. She and two of her sisters all went on to become dancers, including her twin Samantha, now with the New Complexions Contemporary Ballet. “We started when we were five,” Figgins said of herself and her sister Samantha. “We’re identical twins. We had as an example our older sister Dionne and all the encouragement from our mom Linda.”

She was here only recently with DTH last year in “Dance Across America.”

“This is even more special, because this is my hometown, because we’re working with other people, because this is what’s special about being in a company,” Figgins said. “It’s all about removing your ego, which is hard, you know.”

Both Jenelle and Samantha Figgins went through Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, the Dance Institute of Washington and Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts—“that was our high school, it was so important.”

She’s serious, in the sense that she’s given everything about dance and being a dancer a lot of thought and is articulate about expressing those thoughts. Figgins mused: “In a company, you’re reliant and work with everyone else. But it’s also about a visual language, a way of communicating through movement, through gestures and music, a different way of articulating the world and being in it. There is this great promise in dance and ballet, that you can travel through the world with it, that you can find new ways of expressing yourself.“

Her record of performance and training speaks for itself: she received scholarships to attend Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Kennedy Summer intensive, and attended SUNY Purchase New York and received her BFA with honors in dance. She was with Springboard Danse Montreal, and in her young (she’s 24) career featured in works by Sarah Mettin, Kevin Thomas Emily Molnar, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Balanchine, Nora Reynolds and Hinton Battles. She has performed with the Metting Movement Collective, Collage dance Collective and Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montreal.

You can see her online during a rehearsal of “La Bayarde,” and you see and feel her freedom and seriousness at the same time. And you can smile at the girl who attended Duke Ellington on 35th Street here in town, who is now Jenelle Figgins, ballerina.

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Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:26:06 -0400

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