Virginia Johnson, DTH prepare for City Center season

Zita Allen | 4/13/2017, 12:32 p.m.
April 19-22, Dance Theatre of Harlem swings into City Center Theater with a program designed to highlight this company’s young, ...
Dance theatre of harlem company artists in "Dialogues" Rachel Neville photo

April 19-22, Dance Theatre of Harlem swings into City Center Theater with a program designed to highlight this company’s young, gifted ballet dancers’ command of a choreographic palette that ranges from the cool, elegant precision of classical ballet to the articulate earthiness of modern dance.

Recently, that range was on full display during a rehearsal at DTH’s Harlem headquarters, where dancers offered a tantalizing taste of the upcoming season as they performed sections of Glenn Tetley’s exciting “Dialogues.” Dancers sailed across the studio in pairs, devouring leaps and bounds, or performed athletic, sensual pas de deux from the dance’s four sections.

It’s been close to five decades since DTH founder Arthur Mitchell established his history-making school and company on the strength of a dream, willpower and the support of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstin of New York City Ballet, the company where, in 1956, Mitchell broke a barrier in the heretofore lily white world of American ballet.

Now, in the large studio of that landmark home, artistic director and former principal ballerina, Virginia Johnson, is conducting a rehearsal for a small audience of DTH family and friends. On display is one of several highlights of DTH’s upcoming season, “Dialogues,” a work created in 1991 by noted choreographer and former Graham dancer Tetley.

Tetley’s piece is just one of the works on an expansive four programs of NY premieres and audience favorites by such celebrated choreographers as Robert Garland, Francesca Harper, Jose Limon, Dianne McIntyre and Darrell Grand Moultrie.

DTH Artistic Director Virginia Johnson shared insights into the upcoming season and answered questions about the future of Blacks in ballet.

AmNews: How are rehearsals for the upcoming season going?

Johnson: Rehearsals are going well. We just came back from a wonderful monthlong tour. We were out on the West Coast in California and Seattle and we just did two weeks in Pittsburgh, where DTH shared the stage with the Pittsburgh Ballet.

AmNews: There was a time Mr. Mitchell said DTH’s goal was to “prove” that Blacks and Ballet were not dance’s equivalent of oil and water, while also providing dancers much-needed opportunities. What would you say is DTH’s primary mission today?

Johnson: Mr. Mitchell set out to have people see ballet in a new way and I think that is what I still want it to be. We are a 21st century ballet company. People have wanted to define us as a Black ballet company, but we were always a diverse company that gave opportunities to people that had been excluded because of the color of their skin, or their height, or something like that, so we were inclusive in ways that companies weren’t before. But, DTH was also about defining this art form as something that belonged to everyone and that’s what we’re still doing.

Of course, when the company was in its heyday and there were 55 dancers, there were ballets that we could do that we can’t do at the moment with 16 dancers. That kind of puts a lot of the classical cannon in that category because you have to have the massive corps de ballet and the costumes and scenery. We are not in that moment. We are still looking to make this classical art form belong to now.