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Black and white
The Topf Center gala

The first time I thought much about African-Americans in ballet was 1982, when Bill T. Jones broke off a duet he and Arnie Zane were performing at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to take issue with the esteemed critic from the New Yorker. "Arlene Croce says blacks have flat feet," he barked at the audience. Croce didn’t seem to have had much of a problem with New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell’s feet, but, 23 years later, Jones still has grumping rights: outside of Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, ballet remains overwhelmingly white.

I wonder whether Jones got to visit the Topf Center for Dance Education back then. In 1974, Margie J. Topf founded MJT to provide "the discipline of dance" to urban youth. Located on Tremont Street in the South End, where black and white Boston meet, the Topf Center, as it’s now known, provides free outreach to some 2000 children and teenagers each week, the goal being to instill confidence and pride rather than turn out professional dancers. At its Wang Center gala last Saturday, "An Evening of Dancers in Black & White," the Topf presented its 2005 Terpsichore Award to former New York City Ballet principal Jacques d’Amboise, who in 1976 founded the National Dance Institute in New York with a similar mission.

The evening comprised a reception and after-party in the Wang Theatre’s great hall and a performance across the way at the Shubert MC’d by an effervescent Liz Walker. Taking the Shubert stage to accept the award, d’Amboise told us that his Irish grandfather drove a hackney cab in Copley Square (you can see a photo of him in Back Bay Station), that his father was Joe Kennedy’s personal telegrapher, and that he himself was born in Dedham. Dance kept him out of the Upper West Side gangs of his youth, and he’s returned the favor; in his "tomato" anecdote he told of meeting a former pupil ("with a lot of safety pins in his ear") on the Manhattan subway and how that got people in the subway car talking to each other. He was well into his 40s when he partnered Suzanne Farrell in the 1981 performance of George Balanchine’s Davidsbündlertänze that’s available on DVD, but he’s still elegant and poetic.

The bill had Miranda Weese and Philip Neal from NYCB, Alicia Graf and Donald Williams from DTH, and Adriana Suárez and Gianni Di Marco from Boston Ballet joining dancers from the Topf program and the Boston Ballet School and Boston Ballet’s Citydance. Spontaneous and enthusiastic, the kids were more than all right, doing a sparky cheerleader number and a mediæval saltarello and a "Dansa brasileira." And Jacques d’Amboise staged a pas de deux choreographed by his son Christopher whose witty movement and lyrics ("Just say you’ll pas de deux/Before we kiss goodbye/For if you pas de don’t/Then I will pas de die") were matched by the witty performance of the Boston Ballet School’s Isaac Akiba and Isabella Kulkarni. Boston Ballet senior dancer Viktor Plotnikov choreographed the quirky, asymmetrical, can-we-see-that-again number Marionettes for seven women and one man from the Boston Ballet School. Gracias a la vida, the pas de deux that Di Marco did for himself and Suárez, was a swirling, flowing, romantic affair with hints of Nacho Duato.

Dancing Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Weese and Neal looked constricted by the small Shubert stage, and even in "The Man I Love" segment from Who Cares, with all its firefly flashes of Mr. B, there was more accuracy than abandon. Graf and Williams, on the other hand, looked born to the kinetic, jagged pas de deux from Agon; they had amplitude and attitude, even anger, and they were focused on each other and not the audience. Both are black — is this the future of Balanchine? Where is Arlene Croce’s review when we need it? Then again, when Boston foundation CEO the Reverend Ray Hammond got out on stage and led the grand finale, "Groove Is in the Heart," we were reminded that what dance really needs is not critics but dancers.

Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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