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.
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.