Performance » Dance

Dance Theatre of Harlem

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Virginia Johnson dedicated her youth to ballet, spending years in classes perfecting technique during the 1950s and ’60s in Washington, D.C. But when it was time to take the proverbial next step, Johnson was told she’d never become a professional ballet dancer.

Arthur Mitchell thought otherwise.

The man who cofounded Dance Theatre of Harlem – “the first black classical ballet company” with Karel Shook – in 1969 didn’t see the color of Johnson’s skin as a roadblock to her future. In fact, it was an advantage. Her technical skills made the decision easier.

“Arthur Mitchell gave me the chance to realize my dream,” recalls Johnson, who began studying ballet at age 3. “I got to Dance Theatre of Harlem just as it was being founded and was able to be who I wanted to be, which is amazing to me.”

Johnson spent her 28-year career as a founding member and principal dancer at DTH, starring in the company’s iconic productions, traveling the world and proving naysayers wrong.

Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, spent 28 years as a dancer and principal dancer with the company. -  - COURTESY DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM.
  • Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem.
  • Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, spent 28 years as a dancer and principal dancer with the company.

Today she’s in the position to do for others what Mitchell did for her. And what New York City Ballet did for Mitchell in 1955, when he became the first African-American male to become a permanent member of a major ballet company.

Since 2010 Johnson has served as DTH’s artistic director, and she continues to help dancers of color break barriers in the world of classical ballet. It’s a world that still questions – even in the Misty Copeland-era – whether dancers of color have what it takes to compete and succeed at the professional level.

“It is my joy and duty to do that for the next generation of dancers,” says Johnson. “The most important thing to me is we still have to change people’s minds.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem does that every time its performing company takes the stage. Indianapolis will experience the uniqueness and power that is the Dance Theatre of Harlem when its dancers perform a week from this Saturday (Feb. 20th) at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.

Since its inception DTH has bucked the traditional ideal of what a “real” ballet dancer looks like, turning the antiquated view (white, long and lean) on its head.

You see it when you walk inside DTH studios in New York as dancers of all backgrounds and ages work on technique during weekly classes – providing a glimpse of the promise of ballet’s future.

But it’s when the curtain rises on the opening of a Dance Theatre of Harlem performance, when the burgeoning ideal is seen in its full glory.

The rich hues of the dancers’ skin, their muscular yet slender bodies first catch your eyes. Yet it’s the masterful technique and the eclectic and powerful choreography – from classical to contemporary ballet to modern and West African dance set to everything from classical to soul music – that leaves you mesmerized.

Dance Theatre of Harlem company dancers Anthony Javier Savoy and Stephanie Williams perform Robert Garland’s “Return.” -  - COURTESY MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Courtesy Matthew Murphy
  • Dance Theatre of Harlem company dancers Anthony Javier Savoy and Stephanie Williams perform Robert Garland’s “Return.”

Johnson is excited to share that experience with Indianapolis.

She says the program will feature two new works, including Divertimento, a classical ballet by Elena Kunikova, as well as Dianne McIntyre’s Change, which merges modern dance and ballet in the choreographer’s first work en pointe.

Rounding out the performance are two popular DTH repertory pieces: Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven by the late Ulysses Dove, created during the “height of the AIDS crisis,” and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Vessels.

Dance Theatre of Harlem will also conduct a master class for students at Broad Ripple Magnet High School for Arts and Humanities while in Indianapolis.

Community outreach is an important part of DTH’s mission, and it’s a continuation of Mitchell’s legacy.

“I think the biggest importance is the fact that when we come in the room and we’re teaching ballet, we have brown skin,” says Johnson about the company’s outreach efforts. “…I think that’s the very first step because it’s an indication to say, ‘Look, you might think that this is closed to you or you might think that this is something that’s not interesting to you, but there is a connection that you can make if you want to.’ People need to know the broad spectrum of dance that’s possible for them.”

Nicole Hargro says having DTH come to Broad Ripple is both an honor and privilege.

Dancers Chyrstyn Fentroy and Jorge Villarini perform Coming Together. As the “first black classical ballet company,” Dance Theatre of Harlem is known for showcasing the beauty and skill of dancers of color.  - COURTESY RACHEL NEVILLE
  • Courtesy Rachel Neville
  • Dancers Chyrstyn Fentroy and Jorge Villarini perform Coming Together. As the “first black classical ballet company,” Dance Theatre of Harlem is known for showcasing the beauty and skill of dancers of color.

“We never take these opportunities for granted,” says Hargro, a dance magnet professional and dance coach at the school. “Our faculty and students are so overjoyed to share and receive as much as we can from this world-renowned, diverse dance company.”

Hargro, also the founder and artistic director of Beyond the Pointe Dance, says the conversation of whether African-American girls (and boys) can or cannot be professional ballet dancers will probably continue for generations to come. But companies such as Dance Theatre of Harlem offer hope to aspiring dancers of color.

Johnson, like Raven Wilkinson and Janet Collins before her, is among an elite group of pioneering African-American ballet dancers spearheading that hope.

These days, Johnson provides inspiration from her office and the DTH studios in New York, in communities across the country, and even from the audience during company performances.

“I’m in the audience every night because that’s where I can see what’s happening. I can go back and give the dancers notes about what’s happened in the performance,” she says. “I also like interacting with the audience.”

After nearly three decades as a professional dancer (she retired from dancing in 1997, and later founded and became editor-in-chief of Pointe magazine from 2000-2009), Johnson says she doesn’t miss her time in the spotlight.

“I have no desire to ever step foot on the stage again,” she says, stressing the “o” in the word “no,” with a slight chuckle. “It was hard when I was doing it as a living, and I’m happy not to have to do it now.”

Jenelle Figgins (left), Ingrid Silva (center) and Nayara Lopes (far right) perform Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Vessels for Dance Theatre of Harlem. -  - COURTESY RENATA PAVAM.
  • Courtesy Renata Pavam.
  • Jenelle Figgins (left), Ingrid Silva (center) and Nayara Lopes (far right) perform Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Vessels for Dance Theatre of Harlem.

She’s content helping the next generation of dancers take their place on stage. However, traveling with the company isn’t just about bonding with dancers and mingling with the audience. “I do it because we’re building this together. It’s a group effort. I’m making sure that we stay on target.”

Like several dance companies before and after it, Dance Theatre of Harlem fell on financial hardships causing founder Arthur Mitchell to put the performing company on “hiatus.” The school and outreach programs continued business as usual.

While it was thought the company would only be away for a few months, those months turned into years. The performing company was down from 2004 to 2012.

“The idea was to put the company on hiatus for maybe a season, but it actually ended up being much more extended than that because there were more issues that needed to be solved,” says Johnson, personally tapped by Mitchell to succeed him as the new artistic director.

Mitchell knew his company would always come back. It’s a feat most dance companies never accomplish.

Lindsey Croop and Anthony Javier Savoy are two of 14 company dancers with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
  • Lindsey Croop and Anthony Javier Savoy are two of 14 company dancers with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Not Dance Theatre of Harlem.

“People really wanted us back,” says Johnson. “People really missed us, you know. People have a sense that there’s something going on here that gives to them in a way that nothing else was doing.

“There’s something very special about this message that we have – about what’s possible in this art form.”

Several major funders were behind the resurgence of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Bringing the company back wasn’t just a matter of pride. It was about strategy and what they wanted the future of dance to look like.

“Bringing the company back in 2012 was a matter of looking at what a ballet company – a touring company – could look like at this point and time,” says Johnson. “So, DTH is a much smaller company than it was in 2004. We don’t travel with two semis full of scenery and sprung floors, lighting and sound equipment. We don’t have that luxury at this point. So we had to think very carefully about what the company was going to look like in these first years.”

In it’s prime, Dance Theater of Harlem was a 44-member company. Today’s 14-member roster is by design.

“We will get larger, but we want to do this is a sustainable way,” says Johnson. “Fourteen members is by economic design. We don’t want to ever be in that (economic) place again.”

Right now, Johnson says the company is where it’s supposed to be.

“When I came back in 2010, we set the goal that we would spend two years stabilizing the organization, developing repertoire and getting the plan to work, and we started the company back in 2012,” says Johnson.

“For me, the idea is that DTH will continue to be a touring company across the country and around the world, and that we will continue to bring new ideas to this world of classical ballet.”

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