When Dance Theatre of Harlem was forced to close its professional company in 2004, it was a blow to dance lovers around the country and to fans in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle had been a frequent stop during the company's 35-year history, attracting raves for its productions of classical ballets as well as contemporary work influenced by African and African-American cultural traditions. So it seems fitting that after Dance Theatre of Harlem re-started its company two years ago, then mounted its first national tour in 2012, Seattle would be on the itinerary.
Dance Theatre of Harlem was born in 1969 out of the Civil Rights struggles. Harlem-born ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell, a principal at the acclaimed New York City Ballet, was influenced to by Dr. Martin Luther King’s work to return to his old neighborhood to start a dance school. According to current Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, Mitchell wanted to create something to give back to his community. “He really believed that the art form of ballet was something that would empower young people,” says Johnson. “Not necessarily as dancers, but in anything they wanted to do stepping up into a profession.” Mitchell believed that the demands of ballet would give his students a sense of discipline and prepare them for whatever they decided to undertake.
Virginia Johnson was 18 years old when she first made her way to Dance Theatre of Harlem. Johnson had studied ballet all her life, but was shocked when she was told that there was no place for her in the art form — that there were no black ballerinas.
Johnson know of Arthur Mitchell’s ballet career. When she heard he’d started a school, she went up to Harlem to take a class. That’s when she found out Mitchell intended to create a professional dance company as well as a school. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I’m a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem,” Johnson says proudly. “That was an amazing experience, really literally seeing minds change because of our performances.”
Johnson danced with the company for more than a decade, ending her performing career as one of the principal dancers. She went on to help found a noted ballet publication, Pointe magazine, but when Arthur Mitchell called her in 2009, asking her to take over the artistic leadership at Dance Theatre of Harlem and to help revive the professional company, Johnson didn’t hesitate to leave journalism.
“The sound of his voice in my ear is still very vivid,” she says. “Can you imagine this towering figure having faith in my ability to take the organization he created forward?”
Virginia Johnson’s Dance Theatre of Harlem is about half the size of the company in its heyday: 18 dancers instead of 44. That means the company can’t stage some of the big ballets that made it popular. Johnson dreams of growing the company, but she says that will take time. When she went out to audition dancers of color in 2010, Johnson was surprised that very few met her high artistic standards. Professional schools and companies were still mostly white. But Johnson says even in the two years since she took over Dance Theatre of Harlem, attitudes toward African-American ballet dancers have changed. She now gets calls from ballet companies asking if she has students who might be interested in auditioning for them.
In 10 years, the time it takes to train a professional ballet dancer, Virginia Johnson imagines ballet dancers of color will be accepted as the norm, “That this whole idea that you have to have a company for them because they aren’t anywhere else will be part of the past.” And that dream makes Virginia Johnson smile.
Until then, dance fans have a chance to see the recreated Dance Theatre of Harlem this Friday and Saturday, November 16 and 17, at the Moore Theatre.