Since its founding in 1969, the Dance Theatre of Harlem consistently has broken new ground and endured its share of adversity.
But perhaps nothing was as devastating as when in 2004, due to a financial setback, the company all but shuttered.
The arts education component — something that had always been the group’s mission — was kept alive, but public performances, the all-important visibility for any performing-arts group, ceased while the organization regrouped. That regrouping was supposed to last a year at most.
It was a blow to the company and the dance community, said Virginia Johnson, who was a founding member and a ballerina and was with the company for 28 years before retiring in 1997.
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DTH has always been committed to classical ballet and is one of the few black dance companies that performs en pointe.
“I only knew from the outside how heartbreaking it was to lose the company,” said Johnson, who rejoined the organization as artistic director in 2009. “Some of the dancers in the company, that was the end of their career.”
Now the company is back on track and paying off its debt, presenting performances in New York and on a busy touring schedule. Johnson and some of the company members are in the midst of a two-week stay in North Texas, which began last weekend at the International Association of Blacks in Dance Festival, hosted by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Dance Theatre of Harlem is one of the founding members of that organization and performed at the event, as well as in Tyler on Thursday.
It performs at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall on Sunday, and at the Irving Arts Center on Thursday. While in the area, the group is also keeping alive the company’s goal of education, working with and performing for schoolchildren across North Texas.
“I love bringing our story to each new town and making a difference in arts education,” said Lindsey Croop, a dancer from Midland who has been with DTH for two years. “It feels more like I’m part of the social mission of dance.”
That mission has always been important to co-founders Arthur Mitchell and the late Karel Shook, who died in 1985.
Mitchell had already been breaking boundaries. He received a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet, and in 1955, became the first African-American male member of the New York City Ballet. He had been taken under the wing of George Balanchine and was soon dancing ballet roles such as the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Agon — paired with a white ballerina — and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Mitchell, who now has the title of artistic director emeritus with Dance Theatre of Harlem, was a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., and was in fact on his way to the airport to visit the U.S. State Department in 1968 — where he would discuss the formation of a black ballet company — when he heard the news of King’s assassination.
That’s the year when Johnson, a young ballet dancer from Washington, D.C., started studying with Mitchell. “He was starting a ballet company,” said Johnson. “I had to convince my parents it was what I wanted to do.”
Johnson said that while the goal was to create a professional ballet company with mostly black dancers — the group has always considered itself multiethnic — with the civil rights movement still in full swing, there was another purpose for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“Arthur Mitchell was inspired by Martin Luther King. We were all part of that,” Johnson said. “We were all following him in his example of using what he could do to make a difference in the world. He was a preacher and a great orator, and he used what he could do to have people think about something they hadn’t before, in a way they hadn’t. Arthur Mitchell was very inspired by that. He used dance to accomplish this.”
He also wanted to teach the art of ballet to youth.
“He wanted to use his expertise to reach the kids of Harlem,” Johnson said. “He realized that classical ballet is a perfect tool to give anyone — whether you’re an inner-city kid or the richest kid in the world — the tool that you need to succeed in the world, to be focused and disciplined and, most of all, perseverance. In classical ballet, you’re constantly getting tired and you’re constantly told that it’s not right, and you have to keep your commitment to the idea of working against all kinds of opposition to make sure you create a space for yourself in the art form.”
There was some skepticism of the group, by both whites and blacks, Johnson said, but that didn’t deter them from following King’s dream.
“We had to work very hard to master the technique. We had to learn the neoclassical style of ballet that George Balanchine had mastered,” Johnson said. “We were always representing DTH, everywhere we went. We had to speak about what we were doing; we had to always look like we were the best ballet dancers in the world, even if we were going to the grocery store.”
From the beginning, Dance Theatre of Harlem booked international tours and also toured this country, traveling by bus. In the early 1970s, there wasn’t always an audience for a black ballet company.
“I remember very vividly of being in Detroit and performing in a high school, and they had armed guards,” Johnson said. “It was an amazing experience. We did it by bus. We saw a lot.”
Although black dance companies would begin to populate the country in the ’70s and ’80s — most notably Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, but also groups like Denver’s Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and the Dallas Black Dance Theatre — they were mostly devoted to modern dance. The Dance Theatre of Harlem was different in that it dances en pointe.
“We follow the tradition of classical ballet that began in the court of Louis XIV,” Johnson said.
The group includes works by Balanchine in its repertoire but also has debuted works by such notable black choreographers as Robert Garland and Christopher Huggins, who also works frequently with Dallas Black Dance.
DTH even restaged Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending, which was not choreographed en pointe.
“Modern [dance] is about being grounded onto the floor, with contractions coming from your pelvis and that kind of thing,” said dancer Croop, who fell in love with ballet in West Texas when her family watched a production of The Nutcracker on PBS. “Ballet is about being elevated, off the floor.”
Johnson adds that although pointe work was added to Ailey’s ballet, there was no other change in the original choreography.
“We didn’t have to change the choreography in any way, except put the dancers in pointe shoes and put them on their toes,” Johnson says. “The work is about being elevated and lifting off the ground, and being on pointe adds to that.”
Between 1997 and the year she rejoined Dance Theatre of Harlem, Johnson studied journalism and founded the ballet magazine Pointe, for which she served as editor and a writer, interviewing dancers and artistic directors from across the country and around the world. She credits that experience for maintaining a love for dance.
“I began to see how vital the art form is,” she said. “It made me fall in love with ballet again, and being an artist.”
And that’s enough to keep her optimistic about the future of the company, and of dance as a performance art.
“In the arts, it’s always a new day. It’s always a new adventure,” she said. “It’s never going to be easy street, and that’s why we do it. We love the art and the challenge.”