The Dance Theatre of Harlem premieres 'Higher Ground' set to Stevie Wonder

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

As the Dance Theatre of Harlem's newest piece, "Higher Ground," winds to a close — set to the iconic music of Motown's own Stevie Wonder — three male dancers lift their partners into the air, their arms arched.

The ballet, choreographed by Dance Theatre of Harlem's resident choreographer Robert Garland, is as buoyant and soulful as Wonder's music. And after a nearly two-year pause because of COVID, "Higher Ground" will finally make its world premiere this weekend when the Dance Theatre of Harlem performs Saturday and Sunday at the Detroit Opera House.

Detroit is an appropriate spot for the "Higher Ground" premiere not just because of Wonder but because it's also where Dance Theatre of Harlem was when the pandemic started nearly two years ago.

"This is the very place that we stopped everything" in 2020, recalls Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem's artistic director, pausing for a break after a technical rehearsal Friday at the Detroit Opera House. "...And that was such a wrenching experience. To actually get back here and pick up the pieces and move forward is very positive. Very positive."

The Dance Theatre of Harlem performs "Passage." It's one of three pieces it will perform this weekend at the Detroit Opera House, including "Higher Ground" set to Stevie Wonder's music.

Wonder's "Higher Ground" is one of five in Garland's new 28-minute piece. It starts with  "Look Around" from 1971 and also includes "You Haven't Done Nothing," "Village Ghetto Land" and "Saturn" before eventually concluding with "Higher Ground."

Garland said music of the 1970s like Wonder's helped shape his political imagination.

"Who can forget 'Living for the City'?" said Garland during a visit to Detroit's Motown Msueum in December. "I heard that as a kid and then I began to understand there's a world out there that he's telling me about."

Johnson said when Garland first told her he wanted to create a work to Wonder's music, "I thought that was so amazing."

"When I'm watching this and listening, I remember what it was like to be a dancer with this company in the '70s and '80s and listening to Stevie's voice and feeling that that was my voice," she said.

Garland's work mixes neoclassical dancing with contemporary African American social dancing. At one point during a technical rehearsal on Friday "Higher Ground," the dancers, all dressed in burnt orange costumes and wearing masks, cross the stage in sync, bending their knees almost with a sense of swagger.

Alison Stroming, Lindsey Donnell and Ingrid Silva perform with The Dance Theatre of Harlem.

"It really reflects what Dance Theatre of Harlem is about and saying that this art form, classical ballet, is something can be used and expressed in many ways," said Johnson.

Aside from "Higher Ground," the dance theatre also will perform "Passage," a contemporary work from choreographer Claudia Schreier that examines the fortitude of the human spirit in recognition of the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia, according to the Michigan Opera Theatre.

Johnson said she hopes patrons walk away from this weekend's performances, especially "Higher Ground," "lifted up."

"The songs that Robert has chosen are very serious discussions of what it is to be a Black person in America," Johnson said. "It ends with 'Higher Ground' which is the most uplifting. So the journey he takes us is to remind us that there's much work to be done but we're heading to a place that's worth it."

The Dance Theatre of Harlem

7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday

at the Detroit Opera House.

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