Dance Theatre of Harlem: Celebrating diversity, dancing beyond barriers

Zita Allen | 4/7/2016, midnight
As the talented members of Dance Theatre of Harlem pirouette, jeté, leap, run or just walk on stage during its ...
Dance Theater of Harlem Rahcel Neville

As the talented members of Dance Theatre of Harlem pirouette, jeté, leap, run or just walk on stage during its New York City Center season (April 6-9 ) dazzling and delighting audiences, they will also be celebrating the company’s 45-year tradition of helping to, among other things, shatter one of America’s most enduring artistic glass ceilings.

Virginia Johnson, DTH’s artistic director and its star for more than two decades, recently told the Amsterdam News that during the company’s hiatus (2004-2013), there was a void in America’s cultural landscape. “In terms of that ongoing message of empowerment from seeing dancers of color on the ballet stage, we kind of disappeared for a generation of dancers,” says Johnson. “Now, DTH is in the process of re-reminding people that yes, we are here. We have done this. This is an important part of what DTH has been doing for the past 45 years.”

Since DTH was founded by Arthur Mitchell, New York City Ballet’s first Black principal dancer, some have said its mission was to “prove” that Blacks could master ballet. Mitchell and co-founder Karel Shook actually focused on opportunity and excellence more than proof. After all, as I wrote in Dance Magazine (1976), anyone familiar with the history of Blacks in ballet knows proof was unnecessary. Witness Raven Wilkinson (1950s soloist with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Dutch National Ballet), Delores Browne (New York Negro Ballet ), Janet Collins (Metropolitan Opera Ballet), Sylvester Campbell (Netherlands National Ballet), Louis Johnson, Talley Beatty, Billy Wilson and countless others who appeared with major American ballet companies or danced major classical roles in European companies. So, how fitting is it that Saturday, April 9, DTH will pay tribute both to its own former ballerinas, including Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Melanie Pearson, Karen Brown, Theara Ward and Endalyn Taylor and to those who danced with New York City Ballet, Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and other companies.

Yet, as DTH’s current season reminds us, this company is about many types of diversity. DTH’s repertory not only includes neoclassical ballets, such as George Balanchine’s masterpiece “Agon,” in which Mitchell danced the central pas de deux at the work’s 1957 premiere, but also includes more contemporary works such as Nacho Duato’s richly poetic “Coming Together,” and Robert Garland’s “Gloria,” a vibrant tribute to a rich cultural legacy. Season premieres include new additions to this stylistic diversity: classical ballerina Elena Kunikova’s “Divertimento” and innovative modern dance icon Dianne McIntyre’s “Change.”

“I wanted to bring the female choreographic voice to the stage,” says Johnson. “Women have a way of looking at the world and being in the world that is distinctive. The choice of Elena Kunikova was ideal because we are a company that can do all things, yet classical ballet is our foundation, and with Dianne McIntyre, I wanted her to look at something that she felt passionate about and say something about it in her own unique way. We talked about the fact that we’re back in a kind of civil rights era, but for this generation of dancers who are much too young to know what that earlier struggle was, we wanted to connect them to the past on which they stand.”

DTH dancers Lindsay Coop and Jorge Andres Villarini say they and other company members have enthusiastically embraced this multi-faceted concept of diversity. Coop, who performs in McIntyre’s new work, says she not only has learned a different approach to movement but has acquired a deeper understand of the civil rights era thanks to the research McIntyre asked the dancers to do before rehearsals began. Of McIntyre, Coop says, “She is so warm and wise. She created a bond with all of us that helps you open up. It was a unique experience.”

For Villarini, DTH’s stylistic diversity offered an opportunity to both use his ballet and modern dance training, while its embrace of ethnic diversity spoke to him in another way. “As a Latino, I want to use my heritage,” he says. “DTH allows me to do that.” DTH also feeds his desire to dance outside the box and defy “that preconceived notion that we don’t have a right to aspire to something bigger, whether classical, neoclassical, contemporary or something else.”

It’s that celebration of diversity and determination to dance beyond barriers that makes Dance Theatre of Harlem a delight for dancers and audiences alike.