Spring is in the air and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the world-renowned Black ballet company, is back in New York with live performances at New York’s City Center on April 5, 8, 9, and 10th and an exciting program of works that includes two New York premiers, live musical accompaniment and a company of 18 extraordinarily talented ballet dancers headed by Artistic Director Virginia Johnson.
Following over a year of performances that both commemorated its 50th anniversary and paid tribute to its late, legendary co-founder, Arthur Mitchell, the company quickly pivoted to a digital platform amidst COVID-19 shutdowns and continued to innovate in the world of dance while keeping its artists, staff, and audiences safe. Now, Dance Theatre of Harlem continues Mitchell’s monumental legacy as a participating company of the inaugural City Center Dance Festival with a bill of forward-thinking contemporary works and treasured classics that will take the esteemed organization into the next half century.
Virginia Johnson and DHT’s Resident Choreographer and head of the DTH School Robert Garland took time off from a hectic rehearsal and teaching schedules to talk to the Amsterdam News about the company’s long-anticipated return to live performances. “We’re just excited to get back to City Center,” Johnson said. “You know it’s thanks to City Center that this is happening. We’re part of their Festival so City Center is presenting us.
We’re sharing the week with the Graham company,” she adds, explaining that Opening Night, Tuesday, April 5th, DTH, is followed by programs on Friday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 9, at 2 p.m. matinee, and Sunday, April 10 at 5 p.m.
Dance Theatre of Harlem will kick off its homecoming season with its annual Vision Gala on Tuesday, April 5, 2022 with an evening titled “With Gratitude…,” celebrating DTH’s return and expressing the company’s immense thanks to all who supported them during this time of extraordinary change, all of the programs being presented at City Center are the same.
Johnson explains, “We have several wonderful works, including the New York premier of Robert’s ‘Higher Ground’ and Claudia Schreier’s ‘Passage,’ which is really a magnificent work. ‘Passage’ and Robert’s piece are works that I think deal with really key questions: what is this art form, what are African Americans saying in this art form, what can it say and what should it be saying? You know we are ballet dancers and we love this art form so much, we believe in it, and dedicate our lives to it but you know that it doesn’t live in the 19th century alone (when ballets like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake’ were created) it lives now. That is what Dance
Theatre of Harlem is about, showing how ballet can live in the 21st century. It can be meaningful, it can be relevant, and it can touch you in ways that you need to be touched at this time.”
Robert Garland makes the point that “DTH is dedicated to speaking to our community through dance,” as he explains his new work “Higher Ground” set to the amazing Stevie Wonder classic of the same name. “Originally, ‘Higher Ground’ was supposed to premiere in March of 2020 in Detroit, the home of Stevie Wonder and Motown. But we didn’t do that because of COVID. The ballet was choreographed in the summer of 2019 and if you remember that was a very turbulent time and I just got a feeling that the music of Stevie Wonder’s ’70s period, post-Civil Rights, reflected the feeling in the country.” At first Garland wasn’t sure if, after a change in government, the piece would still be relevant. But, he says, “then George Floyd happened and I was amazed that for the ballet to premiere these many years later and I’m finding that its message still resonates. If Black people are the conscience of America, then Stevie Wonder is the conscience of Black America. And, Dance Theatre of Harlem is committed to speaking to our community through dance.”
“That’s what Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre to do,” Johnson adds as she continues that legacy and points to another work being premiered on the program which takes a different approach to that same mission. “The genesis of ‘Passages’ is the story of 1619 and what that meant in terms of Africans arriving on these shores and what that meant in terms of challenges but also in terms of purpose and uplift. It’s very much about the journey. It’s important for us to reflect on our history which is so undisclosed and undiscussed. So bringing it forward is something that we can do here at Dance Theatre of Harlem. Another work on the program is “Balamouk.” That work stems from a very contemporary source, the recent migrations from Africa across the Mediterranean and people risking their lives in search of something better. It’s a very joyous uplifting work choreographed by Colombian-Belgian Anabel le Lopez Ochoa. The music is North African and this season will be performed live by the Klezmatics. This work just erupts with joy, and it’s a very wonderful work.”
At Opening Night’s Vision Gala, Emmy, Golden Globe, and Tony Award-winning dancer, actor, choreographer, director, and producer Debbie Allen is set to receive the Arthur Mitchell Vision Award, which is presented annually to an artist whose legacy is founded on exceptional contributions to the arts community, the award is named for and was inaugurally received by Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. Other honorees to be recognized during the Gala Dinner at the Ziegfeld Ballroom include the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, recipient of the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Award, and Dr. Wendy Ziecheck, Dr. Donald J. Rose, and the NYU Langone Health/Harkness Center for Dance Injuries Medical Team who will each receive the DTH Chairman’s Award. Bloomberg Philanthropies is the Lead Season Sponsor of the 2022 Vision Gala. Of course, it’s important to remember that every night there will be a gala during Dance Theater of Harlem’s upcoming City Center season.