Stevie Wonder's music to be celebrated by Dance Theatre of Harlem in Detroit world premiere

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The Dance Theatre of Harlem is set to premiere resident choreographer Robert Garland's "Higher Ground," inspired by Stevie Wonder.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem is set to premiere resident choreographer Robert Garland's "Higher Ground," inspired by Stevie Wonder.

Just before the pandemic spurred a nearly two-year shutdown for Michigan Opera Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem was the last to stage a performance at the Detroit Opera House.

So it’s fitting that MOT’s return will feature that same illustrious New York troupe — including a performance celebrating a Detroit icon.

Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform a program this weekend that includes Claudia Schreier’s “Passage,” a 2019 work commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in North America.

And there’s the real goodie for Detroit audiences: “Higher Ground,” a contemporary ballet set to an array of Stevie Wonder songs from the 1970s.

The Detroit Opera House performances mark the world premiere of the Wonder-inspired work, crafted by Dance Theatre of Harlem resident choreographer Robert Garland as a piece of social-justice art. “Higher Ground” was initially set to debut in New York in spring 2020, but was derailed by the onset of the pandemic.

Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. (Note: Newly established protocols at the Detroit Opera House require either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the event. Face coverings are also required inside the venue.)

Garland and three of the company’s dancers visited Detroit in mid-December for a tour of the Motown Museum, the Hitsville, U.S.A., headquarters where Wonder cut his musical teeth.

Dance Theatre of Harlem's Robert Garland and Anna Glass and the Motown Museum's Robin Terry (all center) are joined by dancers as they pose for a photo inside Motown's Studio A in Detroit on Dec. 14, 2021.
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Robert Garland and Anna Glass and the Motown Museum's Robin Terry (all center) are joined by dancers as they pose for a photo inside Motown's Studio A in Detroit on Dec. 14, 2021.

In a subsequent video conversation with Motown Museum chief Robin Terry, the choreographer called Wonder “the consummate spiritualist,” “the conscience of Black America” and an artist whose socially charged music still deeply resonates.

Garland’s new work includes at least five Wonder songs — “Look Around,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Saturn” and the titular “Higher Ground” — plucked from the era when the Motown star was blossoming as a powerful artistic voice. They also reflect a time when Wonder and other Black Americans were reckoning with a new reality, Garland said.

“I chose that music because it spoke to a time, post-civil rights, when people were beginning to understand that things were not going to be as great as we’d hoped they’d be,” he said.

“Higher Ground” had been percolating in Garland’s mind for years: He conceived the idea in 2008 when presidential contender Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination to the sounds of Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

This weekend’s MOT program isn’t the only Wonder-related event hitting Detroit in coming weeks: The much-loved Michigan native will also be celebrated Feb. 26 at the Carr Center with “To Stevie, With Love.” Drummer and Carr Center artistic director Terri Lyne Carrington and a top-end ensemble will put a 1950s jazz spin on a selection of Wonder songs.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem

'Passage' and 'Higher Ground'

7:30 p.m. Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sun.

Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit

$29-$129

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Stevie Wonder to be celebrated by Dance Theatre of Harlem in Detroit

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