Dance Theater of Harlem Reopens after Nine Years

Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, with her dancers, at an open rehearsal. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

In the early days of Dance Theater of Harlem its members, charged with proving to the world that black dancers could master ballet, needed a certain pluck. “It was a group of young dancers that went out and carried their own lights and did lecture-demonstrations and started performing,” said Laveen Naidu, 45, the organization’s executive director.

Dance Theater of Harlem performers rehearsing Robert Garland’s new “Gloria.”

That scrappy image has served Virginia Johnson well. The elegant artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem — and its star ballerina for 28 years — Ms. Johnson, 63, was reminded of such humble beginnings last spring, when she held auditions for the rebirth of the company. (It had been forced to go on hiatus in 2004 when it announced its $2.3 million debt.) As Ms. Johnson put it, she had stars in her eyes. But she was in for a surprise.

“I was really shocked at how few African-Americans auditioned,” she said. “And that was the moment when we were looking in this room, and it was like, ‘No, but where are the black people?’ ”

She laughed, as she often does when describing a seemingly hopeless situation. “I thought about Arthur Mitchell with all the hodgepodge of dancers that came to him back in 1969 that he had to make into a company. I said, ‘O.K., it’s the same thing again, and this is great.’ It was actually more exciting than taking top-level dancers and making them into a company. It meant that we had to have that inner-grit thing going again.”

Dance Theater, formed by Mr. Mitchell and Karel Shook, took on the barrier-breaking mission of training and presenting black classical ballet dancers to the world. For years the company was more than a thriving, internationally touring troupe. It showed that ballet was no longer just a white domain. But then the company disappeared, leaving a gaping hole.  One year off turned into nine; disillusionment set in. Now Dance Theater is making a comeback. Beginning Wednesday the company, lean at just 18 members from 44 in 2004, will perform at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

What does Dance Theater of Harlem mean today? Does a primarily black ballet company even need to exist? Since its founding the company succeeded in promoting black classical dances while developing dozens of luminous, powerful dancers, including Ms. Johnson — who still glides across the Harlem studio like a swan — Karen Brown, Homer Bryant, Lorraine Graves, Alicia Graf Mack, Paul Russell and Donald Williams. Ms. Mack is now a member of the hugely popular Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Decades after Mr. Mitchell decided to expose children in Harlem to dance, black dancers are still rare in established ballet companies. Misty Copeland is a soloist at American Ballet Theater, and two apprentices at New York City Ballet, Silas Farley and Olivia Boisson, show tremendous promise. Yet it’s no coincidence that Ms. Johnson chose to add the renowned Black Swan pas de deux to the Dance Theater of Harlem repertory this season.

“We still don’t see enough dancers of color in companies across the country,” Ms. Johnson said. “But I’m not lying when I say that people call me all the time saying, ‘I need dancers of color.’ It’s a deeper problem. It goes back further in time that we’re not training dancers of color, so our schools need to be more embracing, more welcoming, more aggressive.”

Ms. Johnson said she realizes that the School of American Ballet, one of the nation’s top schools and affiliated with City Ballet, is trying to be as proactive as it can. “Schools want to turn out the very best dancers, so they only go for people they think already fit inside the mold instead of thinking, ‘Let’s train people and see who rises to the top.’ I don’t ever mean lowering your standards. Standards are what ballet’s about. It’s opening the entry points to a broader pool of people and helping them take the next steps.”

Dance Theater’s audition process proved that to Ms. Johnson, who said she understood Dance Theater’s lengthy hiatus might have thwarted the ambitions of young, black ballet dancers. Whether or not their dream was to join Dance Theater, at least the company was a tangible prospect. That awareness gave Ms. Johnson extra incentive to get the troupe up and running. With so few outside dancers to draw from she decided to target members of the Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble — a junior company that served as the institution’s performing entity during the hiatus — to see who might transition into the professional group.

As it stands Dance Theater is a predominantly black company, but not exclusively so. “The African-American culture is a vein that runs through the organization, and we don’t want that to disappear, but I don’t want it to be just a black company,” Ms. Johnson said. “That doesn’t seem true to the time that we’re living in now. Dance Theater of Harlem, even from the beginning, was not exclusively black. It’s about this art form belonging to everyone.”

From far left, Taurean Green, Ashley Murphy and Dustin James rehearsing “Gloria.”

The turnaround at Dance Theater has not come overnight. It’s the result of adherence to a five-year plan initiated in 2010 by Mr. Naidu and Ms. Johnson; a consultant, paid for by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, worked with the company to put the plan into place. As of February the organization has reduced its debt to $644,000. Mr. Naidu said the goal was to keep the company in the $5 million to $5.5 million range, which means raising $3.3 million to $3.6 million “a year from contributed sources and then earning the rest.”

The board now has 24 members, up from 14 in 2010. The plan calls for 30 by 2015, but Mr. Naidu said he is questioning what the right number should be. “Is it a large board of 30 or 35 with a lower giving level, or a small concentrated board with a higher giving level and governance?” he said. “My preference is smaller and tighter.”

With the 2010 advent of Harlem Dance Works 2.0, a choreographic laboratory, Ms. Johnson was able to start creating repertory. Three of this season’s works come from that program: John Alleyne’s “Far but Close,” Helen Pickett’s “When Love” and Ailey’s “Lark Ascending,” which will be performed on point. “It is about flight,” Ms. Johnson said. “Those opening movements are so sustained, so lifting, lifting, lifting — of course to do that in point shoes, oh my God, the poor things. But it’s beautiful on point.”

With so many small to midsize repertory companies today, what sets Dance Theater apart structurally? Partly it’s a commitment to outreach, which, along with the company and school, is integral to the organization. “It’s about giving performances that make people see the world differently than they saw it before the curtain went up,” Ms. Johnson said.

At the Rose Theater the company will lead off with “Agon.” In 1957 George Balanchine created a sensation when he paired Mr. Mitchell with Diana Adams, a white ballerina, in that sensual pas de deux, which is diabolically intricate.

“You can’t give easy things,” Ms. Johnson said with a smile. “How do you grow with easy things?”

During a rehearsal led by the company’s ballet master, Keith Saunders, the dancers fought to master the work’s tricky rhythms. This particular cast was relatively inexperienced, and Mr. Saunders and Ms. Johnson worked in tandem to instill in them the crisp positions with smooth dignity.

For the company member Jehbreal Muhammad Jackson, 24, dancing “Agon” is like living inside a machine. “It’s such a difficult work, but when it happens, and everyone’s on the music and together, it literally feels like everything is syncing right into place,” he said. “The gears are turning right upon each other.”

Creating a company in which its members dance as one unit while maintaining their individuality has been one of the troupe’s biggest challenges. If “Agon” is a test of that inner strength, “Gloria,” a new Robert Garland ballet set to Poulenc, is a celebration of its rebirth. Mr. Garland, Dance Theater’s resident choreographer, has created a full-company neo-classical work with a spiritual twist and using additional young dancers.

Starting in 2004, without a company to choreograph for, Mr. Garland spent time at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts teaching a series of master classes to preprofessional students. “I was forced into a position of having to direct younger minds, younger bodies,” he said. “It actually helped my whole choreographic process. As a result there are children in the last movement of this ballet. I just couldn’t have this be my first ballet and not include the bodies that taught me so much during this time.”

Now there is an anything-is-possible sensibility among the dancers, as well as for Ms. Johnson.

“You know, I didn’t want this job,” she said. “I was like, ‘You have to be crazy to be an artistic director.’ But I’m really very happy. I can’t tell you what it feels like to be sitting in a rehearsal and watching somebody become something consciously because they are sweating and pushing themselves and thinking about it.”

And the dancers are just as in awe of their artistic director. Ingrid Silva, 24, who first encountered dance in the favelas of Brazil, said: “She works in such an amazing way. Not to just tell you want to do — she wants you to discover yourself as an artist.”

While Ms. Johnson gives her dancers the responsibility of finding their artistry, she also spends, to the detriment of her other duties, she said, a great deal of time in the studio and accompanies the troupe on tours. This year about 12 weeks of the season will be spent on a grueling tour; the cities have included Sacramento and Buffalo.

“We’re a team,” she said. “We’re building something together. I feel responsible to them, and they feel responsible to the Dance Theater of Harlem through me.”

For Ms. Johnson it all comes back to the question: What is Dance Theater of Harlem? “It’s not just a job,” she said. “It’s not just a dance company. It’s a message. And the dancers are responding so well to the fact that they are bearers of this message in their physical selves and in their spiritual embodiment of this idea that you can make something of yourself.”

article by Gia Kourlas via

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