Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers reflect as company turns 50

Zita Allen | 8/2/2018, 10:22 a.m.
Dance Theatre of Harlem, the ballet company founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969 and led today by ...
Dance Theater of Harlem Rahcel Neville

Dance Theatre of Harlem, the ballet company founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969 and led today by former DTH ballerina Virginia Johnson, kicks off a months long 50th anniversary celebration at Lincoln Center Saturday, Aug. 4. “50 Years of Dance Theatre of Harlem: Experiencing History on Pointe and in Color” is a panel discussion featuring past and present DTH dancers that gets the ball rolling at 4 p.m. in the Performing Arts Library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. It is then followed by a company performance as part of the Lincoln Center Outdoors program, featuring a dynamic mix of neoclassical and contemporary works.

DTH’s 50th anniversary is a momentous occasion. In its early days, when Mitchell called DTH “the first permanent Black ballet company,” some quibbled, thinking the label premature, even as critics praised DTH’s meteoric rise. When, as Dance Magazine’s first Black critic, I witnessed DTH’s Guggenheim Museum debut with pride, I also took issue with those who saddled the company with the burden of proving Blacks and ballet were not dance’s equivalent of oil and water. At the time, many seemed unaware that before DTH there had been other Black ballet companies and dancers. (Thanks to the late historian Joe Nash, my 1976 Dance Magazine article, “Blacks and Ballet,” discussed such as Delores Brown and Raven Wilkinson and a handful of companies that, despite talent and favorable reviews, were short-lived.)

Today, 50 years later, thanks in no small measure to the DTH effect, ballet’s landscape is changing, slowly but changing. Recently, the Amsterdam News spoke with a few former and current DTH dancers about their careers and the ballet change agent DTH.

Ballet master and DTH former principal Keith Saunders reflected on his career with the company, beginning as an apprentice, rising to principal, and then ballet master. And now, after recently receiving an MFA, moving to yet another level as he accepts a teaching position at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. “Fifty years is quite an achievement,” Saunders said. “I’ve been with DTH for 40 of those 50. My wife Kellye and I are treating this as a big new adventure.”

His wife, Kelly, is also a former DTH dancer and current company ballet master. The couple plans to complete their Texas relocation after DTH’s 2018-2019 season.

Saunders reflected on how it all began.

“I started dancing as an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.,” he said. “My plan was to major in political science and my dream was to become a lawyer.” During freshman orientation, he learned about a dance class. “They called it Afro-American dance,” he said. One class and everything changed.

Dance classes at Elma Lewis’ Boston-based school followed, and soon he had joined her company. Then came auditions with several New York companies, including Dance Theatre of Harlem. “Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Shook offered me a job and, in August 1975, I started as an apprentice,” he said. Before long, he became a principal dancer, performing with DTH for 17 years, from 1975 to 1996. “Sometime around the early 1990s, while I was still dancing, I started doing some ballet mastering,” he said. “In 2004, though we lost the company, we still had the school. I became director of the Dancing Through Barriers and director of the Professional Training. We developed the DTH Ensemble, a kind of second company and, from 2009 to 2012, in the absence of the first company, the Ensemble toured, nationally and internationally, under my direction in those years. When the company came back in 2012, I went back to being ballet master.”

Saunders noted that pre-DTH, his unique career trajectory would have been virtually impossible.

He credited “Arthur Mitchell and the doors he opened through his career at George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and, of course, the founding of DTH.” He added, “Ballet dancers like Delores Brown, who was one of my teachers, did not have similar opportunities because while she was a beautiful dancer, in her generation, society and the arts and ballet, in particular, had not evolved enough. It is one of the great tragedies for Black dancers of their generation, that based on the color of their skin, they were not able to pursue their passion. But it’s a testament to those women that they found a way anyway. Those are the shoulders on which I stand.”

DTH’s impact is undeniably significant both onstage and off. Both former and current DTH dancers have said that DTH changed their lives. Sheila Rohan, one of DTH’s original members, said that at the urging of her sister, Nanette Bearden (wife of painter Romare Bearden), she went up to Harlem to audition for what was to be a new Black ballet company. “I thought it was going to be a little community dance program,” she said. “I had no idea it was going to grow to be so tremendous. I’m proud that I had something to do with that.”

Da’Von Doane, a current member of DTH, represents a generation of younger dancers reaping the benefit of a world transformed by Mitchell and Shook and former DTH principal ballerina, the company’s current artistic director, Virginia Johnson. In fact, in the past, when dance teachers might have encouraged talented ballet students to set their sights on joining a modern dance company, one of Doane’s teachers did something different.

“My teacher mentioned DTH one day and said Arthur Mitchell was training African-American ballet dancers,” Doane said. “I don’t remember exactly what day it was or how the conversation came up, but she obviously saw that I had talent and an ability to do this.”

Inspired, he checked out the company on the web and describes being awed by performance videos. “I never saw the company perform before I auditioned,” he confided.

After all, when the company went on hiatus, he was very young. But when admitted to DTH, he poured over archival tapes. “I’ve been with DTH for 10 years now,” he said. “The company is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. I’m really grateful for it.”

Doane echoed the sentiments of many past, present and probably future Black ballet dancers.

Saunders said, “It’s been one of the great joys and accomplishments of my life to have this long association with DTH and to have been part of a revolution that Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook started in 1969 that has literally spread all over the world raising awareness and giving people of color opportunities in the rarefied world of classical dancing.”