Fort Worth — Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) has experienced some hard knocks across its expansive 44-year history, but in the end it has only made the company stronger. Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet, and his teacher Karel Shook, DTH quickly became known throughout the U.S. as the first black classical ballet company. Since its official debut in 1971 at the New York Guggenheim Museum, DTH has shown audiences all over the world that ballet is accessible to all races.
As the story goes, Mitchell was on his way to the airport in 1968 when he heard the news of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Instead of going to Brazil where he was to create a ballet company, he returned home to Harlem where he created a school to provide the children of the community opportunities in dance. DTH Artistic Director Virginia Johnson says the idea for starting the company came to Mitchell after he realized these young dancers didn’t have anyone to look up to in the world of classical ballet. So, he created the DTH Company to be a series of role models for these children.
“I was really fortunate in that I was a young dancer who had been told I couldn’t do ballet, even though I had trained my whole life in it, and I came to New York just at the moment Arthur Mitchell decided he was going to have a company,” Johnson says. “So, I was able to be part of that first group of dancers who were embodying the principle that given access and opportunity any human being can do anything.” During her 28 years dancing with DTH Johnson has performed most of the company’s repertoire, including principal roles in Concerto Barocco, Allegro Brillante, Agon, A Streetcar Named Desire, Fall River Legend, Swan Lake, Giselle and Voluntaries just to name a few.
Unfortunately, the company was forced to take a hiatus in 2004 due to budgetary constraints. However, DTH returned to the stage, under the direction of Johnson, in 2012 and was met with great acclaim and encouragement especially from the Harlem community. “One of the best things about bringing back the company was the enthusiasm we got from all kinds of corners. It was tremendously difficult to put together the pieces that enabled us to do this and it was a lot of hard work, but the response and encouragement from people who really wanted to see DTH again made it worth it.”
Over the past couple of decades DTH’s message of empowerment has struck a chord within many aspiring black ballerinas, including DTH company member and Allen, Texas, native Stephanie Rae Williams. “I remember the first time I saw Dance Theatre of Harlem perform. I was 16 and my mom drove me to Tyler, Texas, on a school night to see them. I remember how shocking it was because I had never seen so many dancers of color onstage doing ballet before. It was a beautiful experience.” Williams began her career with Texas Ballet Theater in 2006 and since then has dance with the Francesca Harper Project and Ballet Black before joining the restored DTH in 2012.
“When I first came to the company I was so intimated by Virginia,” Williams says. “I had been so many different places and finally felt like DTH could be my home, and I so wanted her to be that next mentor figure in my life. I would constantly push myself to my breaking point, and she has really taught me to calm down and go back to the basics of ballet.”
Johnson admits that today’s dancers, like Williams, are physically and technically stronger than the dancers of her generation. “Their physical embodiment of dance is so powerful. They’re technically strong, flexible and very hungry. In my day I was at the end of that generation where you were either a modern dancer or ballet dancer, but because we have such a diverse repertoire today this generation of dancers has got to be able to do all kinds of movement.”
Today, DTH consists of 18 dancers and currently has 16 pieces in its repertoire. In its first season DTH produced 12 works, which Johnson says was pretty exhausting, but also gave the dancers a real challenge. “It gave them diversity in style and gave them opportunities to perform many different pieces,” she says.
In regards to its second season Johnson says DTH remains committed to carrying forth this message of empowerment through the arts. “We are working in classical ballet, which is an incredibly demanding art form and you are always trying to reach new heights. I think dancers are the most powerful people in the world because we have such focus and attention to detail, and we don’t settle for second best.”
Williams adds, “We had a really great first year, but there is still a lot more growth and a lot more work to be done.”
DTH’s tenacity and talent will be on display for North Texas audiences Jan. 26 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth and Jan. 30 at the Irving Arts Center. The Fort Worth program includes the Act III pas de deux from Swan Lake, Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven and Robert Garland’s Gloria and Return. The Irving program includes George Balanchine’s Agon, Donald Byrd’s Contested Space and Garland’s Gloria.
Williams will be dancing in both Gloria and Return in the Fort Worth performance and all three pieces in Irving. “I haven’t toured back to Texas since I moved away when I was 18 so, this will be the first time that a lot of my friends and family will see me perform. I am very excited!”
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com