Culture takes center stage at Apollo’s Harlem Week Celebration

ZIta Allen | 8/22/2019, 12:24 p.m.
One of the highlights of the Harlem Week 2019’s cornucopia of events celebrating the past, present and future milestones of ...
Herb Boyd speaks at the Apollo Theater Elena Olivo photo

Following a video highlighting Arthur Mitchell’s history and legacy as the first African-American principal with a major American ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Johnson spoke about the groundbreaking ballet company. She described the 17-member, multi-ethnic company as one that performs “forward-thinking repertoire, which includes classics, George Balanchine neoclassical works by him and others, including those resident choreographer Robert Garland, as well as innovative contemporary works that use the language of ballet to celebrate African-American culture while carrying a message of empowerment through the arts for all.” 

“Arthur Mitchell was a child of Harlem. We did lose him last year and every time I think about all he dreamed and all he did, I just have to pause. He gave us such an important gift with Dance Theater of Harlem. He was inspired by this art form and managed to become incredibly successful at a time when we were basically barred from ballet. A lot of people couldn’t understand how he did it. But they didn’t know Arthur Mitchell. They didn’t know his will and his vision. So they were surprised when he decided to step into the world and try to do something that had as much impact as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had in changing the way America saw itself, by using his skills as a ballet dancer to make a difference.”  Johnson recalled how this very successful star of the New York City Ballet “was asked by the U.S. government to start a ballet company in Brazil but, when on his way to the airport April 4, 1968, he was stopped in his tracks [by news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King] and decided there was much work to be done here at home. He said, ‘I’m going to start a school in Harlem and I’m going to give these young people a future by giving them skills that are going to change their lives—skills like  discipline and focus and the most important skill of all, perseverance that strength that you have when someone says, ‘No, you can’t do x’ and you say, ‘Yes, I can.’” 

When Byrd asked Johnson to describe how Mitchell succeeded Johnson spoke of both Mitchell’s vision and his will as well as his skills and connections including “his good friends Cicely Tyson and Brock Peters, as well as Ms. Alva Gimbel [of the department store fortune]” saying, “the building that we have was given to us by Ms. Alva Gimbel.” Describing how DTH moved from being a local to a global success, Johnson noted that DTH has always been a touring company and explained that “Arthur Mitchell always told us, ‘You are ambassadors and you are carrying the name of Harlem all over the world and you have to show people what it means.’” 

Byrd and his panelists closed the discussion by acknowledging an ideal that united them all—the sense of “collective work and responsibility,” and the role Harlem’s cultural institutions play in reinforcing a strong sense of community as the Apollo theater’s Kamilah Forbes said that what binds them together is their awareness that “It is our responsibility to build a cultural ecosystem in this mecca of culture, Harlem, so we can build an even bigger and brighter future as we push our own culture forward.”