A black man was murdered and a ballet company was born: Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 was the impetus for Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded that year by pioneering African-American dancer Arthur Mitchell, along with Karel Shook, a white ballet master who helped run the DTH school. The critically acclaimed company appears at Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque on Wednesday, April 17, as part of a national tour celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. Dancing Through Barriers may be the name of DTH’s youth outreach program, but it’s also an apt description of the company’s journey against the odds.
Classical ballet, which was developed in the courts of Europe in the 15th century, remains an art form dominated by white dancers, choreographers, and company administrators. Traditionally, a line of swans must be monotone. The ideal “ballet body” does not include the musculature of many black female dancers. Misty Copeland, who is the only black principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre, has become the face of African-American dancers, but there are still relatively few opportunities for dancers of color in many of the leading ballet companies in the world.
Virginia Johnson, DTH’s artistic director and former principal dancer for more than 25 years, put it this way: “When Arthur Mitchell came on the scene in the 1950s, there were no ballet studios in New York that would allow black dancers to study.”
Shook, a teacher and dancer who had worked with Katherine Dunham, the matriarch of black dance in America, opened his ballet studio in 1954 with an open-door policy. Soon, all the leading African-American dancers of the day, including Mitchell, Dunham, Alvin Ailey, and Carmen de Lavallade, were studying there.
Mitchell studied at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, and was given a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where he caught the eye of George Balanchine. He became the first African-American principal dancer in the early years of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. The groundbreaking pas de deux in Agon featured Mitchell and a single white ballerina, Diana Adams. The choreography was angular and intimate, featured jarring partnering inspired by the Stravinsky score. But what shocked many ballet-goers was the sight of an African-American man maneuvering a white woman in tights.
In the late 1960s, a multiracial, neoclassical ballet company was a radical idea whose time had come. Alvin Ailey was exploring similar ideas with his modern dance group. Dance Theatre of Harlem was hugely popular all over the world and toured constantly. In its heyday, from the 1970s through the ’90s, the company boasted a cast of 54 and a repertoire of 46 ballets. They were the first American dance company to perform in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. They toured South Africa in 1992, at the end of apartheid, dancing for mixed audiences and conducting outreach to township schools. They created new versions of classic works such as Firebird, Giselle, and Scheherazade.
Unfortunately, financial difficulties forced the company into a hiatus from 2004 to 2012. “There was a whole generation of little girls who didn’t get to see themselves reflected onstage,” company director Johnson said. She was brought in as artistic director in 2010 with a mission to rebuild. “The biggest change since I rejoined Dance Theatre of Harlem is the number of dancers. We’re smaller. We tour with 17. We had a recent audition, and there were so many dancers I would have loved to hire, but there just wasn’t room.”
Mitchell died in September. “We were heartbroken,” Johnson said, adding that she considered him a visionary. “He wasn’t always easy to work with. There was a lot on the line. There was something important to do. He had something to show the world, and he was showing it through us. There was no room for anything but perfection. It was a wonderful but difficult time.”
The rebuilding phase included a nationwide recruitment tour by Johnson in 2011. “The dancers onstage now are the ones from that tour. They include performers from many different places and countries.” Johnson said she was looking for great technique, of course, but also wanted performers who knew who they were, and why they were onstage. “I don’t just want to see a beautiful body. I want to see a person onstage.”
The company is performing Balanchine’s 1967 work, Valse Fantaisie, to music by Mikhail Glinka, a contemporary of Chopin. “Balanchine was our godfather, he believed in Arthur Mitchell. Early on, he gave dances to the company and said, ‘Learn how to dance by doing these,’ ” she said. Also on the program are a duet by Christopher Wheeldon called This Bitter Earth (set to a popular song of the same name made famous by Dinah Washington), and a work about love and loss by Ulysses Dove, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, set to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Return, by Robert Garland, the resident choreographer for DTH, will close the concert. “Return is full of life,” Johnson said. “It has music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown and shows what Dance Theatre of Harlem does best — combines classical ballet with social dancing.”
For Johnson, the 50th anniversary of the company is a chance to look backward at the amazing history of the group, and forward to the future of the company and the art form itself. Johnson is committed to bringing up a new generation of dancers, as well as promoting ballet choreography by women and African-American artists. But she is also facing the challenges of today’s digital universe. “We need to create a need in people to see live theater.” She points out that a dance exists for one time only. Every performance is different. There is value in human beings sitting in an audience, surrounded by people they don’t know, helping to create a moment, an experience of art, that they are part of.
“Come, feel the magic,” she said. ◀
▼ Dance Theatre of Harlem
▼ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17
▼ Popejoy Hall, University of New Mexico, 203 Cornell Drive, NE
▼ Tickets $25-$75, 505-925-5858, unmtickets.com