(L-R): Derek Williams as Alexandre de la Cour; Hugues Magen as Etienne de Villefo; Theara Ward as Bathilde de la Cour; Virginia Johnson as Giselle Lanaux; and the DTH Company in “Creole Giselle” Credit: Dance Theatre of Harlem Archive

Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) Artistic Director Virginia Johnson has announced her retirement from the visionary company, effective at the close of the 2022-23 season on June 30, 2023 ending a four decade-long chapter of dance history. In addition to heading this historic company for the past 12 years at the request of the legendary Arthur Mitchell, who founded and co-directed DTH with Karel Shook, Johnson’s storied career also includes 28 years as a company member, highlighted by her distinction as a founding member and critically acclaimed principal dancer. 

Succession is fundamentally important for any arts institution and that is especially true for DTH. “The world needs Dance Theatre of Harlem,” Johnson says. Personally selected by Mitchell in 2009 as his successor and the company’s second-ever artistic director, Johnson faced a monumental task. At the time of her appointment, though the DTH School and Ensemble were still in operation, the professional company had not performed since its disbandment for budgetary reasons in 2004. Johnson says, “When the company closed in 2004, it was 46 dancers and two semi-trailers full of sprung touring floor, scenery, costumes, etc. We could not be that company in 2012. There was no way to sustain that, so we came back with a much smaller entity.” 

During her time as a DTH ballerina, Johnson, whose many critically acclaimed performances included the lead in the iconic “Creole Giselle,” had seen the toll the financial ups and downs had taken on both Mitchell and the dancers so as artistic director, she says, “I was very determined to not have the organization be in that situation again. I think the important thing for me in those first years was the team of people who were behind the resurgence of DTH working together to figure out what a sustainable institution looked like.” She knew back then that folks were disappointed that it was a scaled down version of its former self, but that was necessary. Now, it’s back and better than ever. Under Johnson’s steadfast guidance, DTH has seen its legacy as an inclusive cultural institution reinvigorated, emphasizing the organization’s universal message of empowerment through the arts for all. She has also championed the artistic voices of female choreographers—particularly women of color—during her tenure, as well as leading the art form in diversity efforts through the cocreation of The Equity Project. Also, a sign of confidence in her leadership is the fact that she has managed to raise significant amounts of funding to bolster the organization.

“To say it is in honor to have played a role in carrying forth the powerful vision laid out by Mr. Mitchell is a profound understatement,” Johnson said. “So much of who I am as an artist, a leader, and a person is intertwined with the history and mission of this organization. As much as I have nurtured young dancers and educated audiences and communities through the rigor and beauty of ballet, I have received back tenfold in experiences I will carry with me forever. Together with a group of passionate and skillful individuals, over the past twelve years, we have achieved the impossible. I am eternally humbled to have led the charge in reestablishing this company’s role as a leader in the world of dance.” 

DTH Board Chairman Ackneil Muldrow III sings her praises saying, “Virginia has been absolutely instrumental in making artistic excellence synonymous with the name Dance Theatre of Harlem once again,” and Muldrow continues, “Her history with the company as a dancer, combined with her wealth of knowledge of the world of ballet at large, provided her the perfect proportion of expertise and insight to lead the organization from an uncertain professional future to restored worldwide acclaim. Along with the rest of the board of directors, staff, and artists, I have no doubt that Robert will continue the masterful trajectory set in motion by Virginia more than a decade ago.”

In a carefully orchestrated passing of the baton, as Johnson assumes the title Artistic Director Emerita, Robert Garland, DTH resident choreographer and school director, will become the new DTH artistic director on July 1, 2023 and former DTH Principal Dancer Tai Jimenez becomes his successor as head of the acclaimed DTH school. Jimenez also has a long history as a DTH company member for 12 years before moving on to Boston Ballet where she became the first Black ballerina elevated to principal in 2006. 

Robert Garland was still pinching himself when the Amsterdam News caught up with him on a hectic school day at DTH after he had corralled a bunch of youngsters into the ballet studio. “It already has been a very rewarding moment for me,” Garland said of what is undoubtedly the high point of a career with the company he joined as a young ballet dancer back in 1984. Looking back over the years at the mentorship he enjoyed under Mitchell as he was given more and more responsibility, Garland says, “This is really a full-circle moment.” Looking forward, he ticks off a few of the items at the top of his agenda when he assumes the reins. It is a list that he says takes into account what Mitchell has long considered DTH’s three-pronged mission. “Mr. Mitchell said there were three prongs to our mission, educational (meaning the DTH school), social mission (the fact we represent something bigger than ourselves), and our community mission. It is a full 360-degree circle of excellence.”  One of the most beautiful things about the changes at DTH is the fact it has been so carefully orchestrated. It has been said that Arthur Mitchell had this amazing talent for looking at people and seeing their strengths, something Johnson, Garland and Jimenez can all attest to. As Virginia Johnson hands over the reins and the torch is passed, she says looking around her office at DTH headquarters on 152nd Street between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas avenues in Harlem, ‘There is a sign in my office that says it all. It reads, The Future of Ballet is in Harlem. I really believe that.”

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