'Grace' Delivers Sweeping Scope

“American Grace” is like a classic 1950s movie on steroids. This epic dance show presents archetypal cinematic elements of a sweeping scale, moments of great drama and unexpected lightheartedness, and a strong sense of history—in ten different forms.

Produced by Valentine N. Quadrat ’09, the show integrates ballet, modern dance, vocal artists, and a live orchestra into a massive artistic endeavor. Directors Raymond W. Keller III ’08 and Sarah C. Kenney ’08 of the Harvard Ballet Company have coordinated with music director Shira R. Brettman ’08 to produce one of the most ambitious dance performances at Harvard in recent memory. In most of its pieces, “American Grace” more than meets these ambitions.

Though the show occasionally falls into mimicry of the creativity of the choreographers and musicians it channels, that reproduction alone is quite a feat. As a whole, the skilled precision and utter professionalism of the show make it a delight to watch.

Running at the Loeb Mainstage until Nov.18, the show presents a set of ten dances created by prominent American choreographers. “American Grace” covers a vast array of dance styles originating from many different time periods in its attempt to present an overview of the history of dance in America—and, concurrently, American history through dance.

Because its scope is so great, “American Grace” also attempts to attract a wide range of theatergoers. Its versatility of coverage allows the show to serve as both an introduction to iconic choreographers for those who have little previous experience with them and as an exploration of the subtle connections between these styles for those who already know their demi-plies from their pirouettes.

“American Grace” begins on shaky ground, but quickly gathers momentum. Although the first pieces tend to emphasize technical precision to the detriment of the emotional and artistic aspects of the performance, these issues are soon resolved as the show proceeds into more modern and accessible territory.

Its opening act, a Fred Astaire piece titled “Never Gonna Dance,” combines voice, orchestra, film, and dance in a large-scale collaboration that nicely parallels the group effort of the entire show. This collaboration does not always succeed in “Never Gonna Dance.” For instance, the directors’ placement of a film of the real Astaire dancing as the set backdrop is a jarring distraction from the performers onstage. The film cannot help but remind us that no one could live up to the sheer flawlessness of Astaire’s performance.

Nonetheless, the performers of “Never Gonna Dance” pay fitting homage to him with their smooth and precise style. Singer Arlo D. Hill ’08—a familiar face in Harvard theater who just finished a star performance in the Ex’s “Dinner”—does an admirable rendition of Astaire’s voice with his mellow opening number. Lead dancers Alissa C. Clarke ’07 and Kevin Shee ’10 fill the shoes of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with confidence and poise.

From the classic moves of Astaire, “American Grace” progresses to more modern forms of dance that incorporate his legacy of precision and style. One highlight is “Sinatra Suite”—an extended duet between two first-years with great potential, Shee and Merritt A. Moore ’10—choreographed by Twyla Tharp and set to music by Frank Sinatra.

Shee lacks the energetic style he displays so well in “Never Gonna Dance” at the beginning and end of Tharp’s piece. Yet at the climax of “Sinatra Suite,” that energy resurfaces with a significant payoff. The piece becomes much more physical, and the two dancers practically force each other around the stage; eventually, though, physicality becomes sensuality, and Shee and Moore come to a beautifully poised equilibrium.

The show finds its center in the ironically titled “Who Cares?,” a piece choreographed by George Balanchine, perhaps the single greatest and most iconic choreographer of American ballet. Keller and Kenney strike the right chords in each of the four excerpts from the ballet. Their direction gives the classical origins and distinctly American flavor of Balanchine’s work full expression, and the dancers do justice to those complex themes.

The wide scope of “Who Cares?” is matched by its big band; the orchestra’s performance of the original George Gershwin accompaniment complements the choreography with nary a wrong note. Piano solos by Kathleen H. Chen ’09 and Nora I. Bartosik ’08 add a light, jazzy feel to the piece that makes it soar.

After the pivotal Balanchine piece, “American Grace” covers much more modern territory with increasingly impressive work. The influence of the earlier choreographers becomes apparent, as technical precision fuses with a more polished finesse.

That finesse becomes apparent in the pieces’ stronger emotional appeal. For instance, the most recent piece, “Witnesses,” was created by choreographer Laura Glenn in reaction to the events of Sept.11. The dancers’ motions powerfully evoke the horror and tragedy of that moment in American history.

The music of “American Grace” also becomes wonderfully innovative in the second half. The orchestra incorporates unusual elements like an African djembe drum and operatic songs (performed by Meghan C. Joyce ’08 and Lauren-Rose King, a junior at New England Conservatory) into their accompaniment. These features complement the dance pieces in unexpected, but lovely ways.

The final piece ends “American Grace” on a whimsical note with Mark Morris’s “Polka.” The dancers execute Morris’s visually exciting choreography with enthusiasm, and the image that Keller and Kenney leave us with—one of all the performers united in a circle, evoking a primal sense of community in their movements—elegantly describes the unity of the show they have bound together thematically.

The costumes, created and coordinated by Annie Z. Li ’07, excel in their understatement. They unobtrusively serve to accentuate each movement of the dancers. Set designer Julia E. Rozier ’08 also uses simplicity to good effect, using a minimalist background and set to keep the focus on the dancers.

One of the most intriguing aspects of “American Grace” is the order of its tremendous variety of pieces. Brettman, Keller and Kenney juxtapose the classics of dance with radically modern pieces that have transformed and reinvented these influences. The unusual sequencing of the show is rarely jarring, and creates interesting connections between the pieces and their themes—connections that hint at the fundamental contradictions within American history itself.

Altogether, the dancers’ and orchestra’s reproduction of the pieces in “American Grace” are an impressive artistic success—one that suggests great potential for the Harvard dance community as a whole. The show lives up to its name, both visually and musically.

—Reviewer Mary A. Brazelton can be reached at