Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) Artistic Director Virginia Johnson is excited, and with good reason; exciting things are happening for this pioneering arts institution.
Not only is DTH II, the ensemble company of this historic organization, making its New York debut at the Joyce Theater this month, but beginning Feb. 25 in New York, auditions will be held in preparation for the long-awaited return of the principal ballet company, founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, America’s first Black male principal dancer, and the world-renowned ballet teacher Karel Shook.
During a recent interview on the eve of both momentous events, it seemed that Johnson, herself a former critically acclaimed prima ballerina with DTH, must be pinching herself.
Pointing to the New York season, Johnson noted that the ensemble, DTH II, has honed its skills over a number of decades with performances around the country. But, she added, of course, this is its New York premiere, so “it’s tremendously exciting, but it’s a lot of pressure dancing in New York because we have such discerning audiences.”
Then there are the auditions for the principal company. Johnson exclaimed, “Wow, here we are days away from having dancers in the studio! Well, it’s actually months, but you know how fast those days go.”
It’s a lot to take in, but she said, as if thinking out loud, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
This month’s Joyce season is a testament to the long road this phenomenal institution has traveled, from a dream conceived by Mitchell in 1969 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to reality, with its 1971 debut on a raised stage in the spacious lobby of the Guggenheim Museum.
While the road was distinguished by phenomenal critical acclaim, amazing financial support and internationally bestowed accolades, it is no secret that in addition to innumerable peaks, DTH’s journey encountered a significant valley in 2004 when the first company disbanded.
But Mitchell’s brainchild lived. Now it is about to achieve a new milestone, with his former prima ballerina at the helm as artistic director and another of his former dancers, Luveen Naidu, as executive director, as well as a highly capable team that includes Keith Saunders and School Director Endalyn Taylor.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as Johnson said. First, there is that Joyce Theater season.
For clarification, DTH II is the “second” of an institution that, for a number of years, had no “first” company. But make no mistake, DTH II is not a placeholder; it is a delightful performance unit of talented young dancers, many of whom have come up through the school’s touring group and are thrilling to watch. It is a delightful sight to behold, and its Joyce Theater debut must not be missed.
Johnson describes the young dancers as breathtaking, pointing to a few fabulously talented standouts, including Devoe Jones, Ashley Murphy, Rene Bhrath, Alexander and Samuel Wilson and Frederick Davis.
“There are 16 dancers in the ensemble; 12 of them will tour at a time in this rotating cast. You know, it’s hard to pull out individual names because they’re all really very exciting for me. One of the really exciting things for me in these past two years is watching them grow as artists,” she said.
But there’s something even more exciting. According to Johnson, many of these dancers will be the nucleus of the Dance Theatre of Harlem company when they come back and begin rehearsals sometime later this year.
Not only is the Joyce season cause for excitement, the return of DTH is cause for celebration.