Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) Artistic Director Virginia Johnson is passing the baton after a career that began just six months after the 1969 founding of the critically acclaimed, groundbreaking institution by the trailblazer ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell (AM), with the help of renowned teacher Karel Shook. The audacious DTH would fly in the face of racist assumptions about the suitability of the Black dancers in ballet, winning national and international critical acclaim and opening doors for many who, like Johnson, had been told, “There’s no place for you in ballet.”
Johnson’s career began with ballet lessons, in her native Washington, D.C., first with Black ballet teacher Therrell Smith, then at the Academy of Washington School of Ballet, followed by admission to New York University as a dance major. A year’s leave from college to pursue ballet with the fledgling Black ballet company turned into a 28-year career as she rose to the pinnacle as prima ballerina before leaving to attend Fordham University and then become founding editor of Pointe magazine. In 2009, at Mitchell’s request, she returned to DTH to protect his vision and shepherd his mission forward.
As a dancer, Johnson dazzled and impressed critics with performances in leading roles in most of the company’s diverse repertoire. She won praise for her clean, crisp elegance and musicality in such neoclassical masterpieces as Balanchine’s Agon, Allegro Brillante, and Serenade and for her powerful, gripping expressiveness in such iconic dance dramas as Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend and DTH’s iconic staging of the classic 19th-century Romantic ballet Giselle, which won the Laurence Olivier Prize when it premiered in London in 1984.
As an artistic director, Johnson has more than fulfilled the mission Mitchell asked her to take on as his successor. She stepped into the demanding role as head of a company whose singular presence in the dance world continues to mark it as much as a testament to its dancers’ technical elegance and inimitable musicality as to their impressive artistry, commendable resilience, and transformative, and—yes—revolutionary impact on a world once oblivious to the boundary-less beauty of the Black ballet dancer. Her achievements as both prima ballerina and artistic director have earned her numerous honors.
Recently, Johnson took a few minutes out of a hectic schedule to speak with the Amsterdam News even as she prepared for the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s upcoming New York City Center season, April 19–23, featuring two New York premieres: William Forsythe’s Blake Works IV, the latest installment of the choreographer’s continuously evolving work The Barre Project, and a new ballet by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, set to the score created by New York-based DJ and composer Erica Blunt (aka Twelve 45) and inspired by the trailblazing jazz musician and civil rights activist Hazel Scott. The program also features Robert Garland’s latest hit, Higher Ground, and Johnson’s favorite Balanchine ballet, the exuberant Allegro Brillante.
ZDA: Why have you decided to pass the baton at this stage in the history of DTH?
VJ: The reason that I’m passing the baton forward is because I know that I’ve done what I could for the organization and now it needs a new leader, a new vision, and new talent. I’m really thrilled that Robert Garland is there. Every iteration of the company is about growth—it’s about becoming more. I did what I could. Now, it’s time for a new, young visionary leader and Robert is that person. When I came back to be artistic director, I was committed to making sure DTH would flourish again…I knew that I had been given the assignment to bring back the company and I knew that I had to find a way to do it. That is nowhere near what Mr. Mitchell did when he created this place.
ZDA: Looking back [at] how things have changed from 1969 to 2023, in terms of audiences, dancers, and the way people view the company. Compare and contrast those two periods.
VJ: In recent months, the pandemic has given me more time to think about it because things ground to a halt, but the period from 2010 to 2018 or so was very much like the beginnings of the company. You had a group of dancers who came from the far corners of the world that you had to make into a company, so that was a similarity for sure, and it gave me more insight into how AM had to work with us to put this together. But it was also different because we are in a different point in time. People like to draw comparisons between the 1970s and the 2000s, and there are similarities—but there are huge differences. There may be things about the Civil Rights Movement that echo the Black Lives Matter movement, but there’s also the context of having a whole generation of dancers who experienced dance in a different way from the dancers who Arthur Mitchell was working with back in the 1960s. I don’t think that it’s hard for me to be able to say, “Oh, it’s like that” or “It’s different because we’re living in a different time and we’re living in a different world.”
ZDA: DTH has played a role in creating that change, especially in terms of the way dance is looked at, and the way the Black body in dance is looked at. Talk about that in terms of the perception of the Black ballet dancer in 1969 and 2023, and the role that DTH and you have played in changing that perception.
VJ: I think that when Arthur Mitchell created this company, he wanted people to understand that ballet didn’t have to be going down the road that it started to go down. DTH did show a different way of seeing what ballet could be, and I think that’s one of the things that he probably would be happiest about. Also, he probably would be a little disappointed that people are still trying to tug us back to “Do you have the right body?,” “Is your hair right?”
ZDA: The legacy of the company is phenomenal in terms of opening people’s eyes to help them re-envision the ballet dancer, and DTH played a huge role in that process. Talk about the DEI initiatives and DTH’s role in laying the foundation for those initiatives.
VJ: [In] 2017, [we aimed to] answer the question that PHILADANCO’s Joan Myers Brown asks all the time: “Where and why are we not making this change ?” We brought together some of the executive leadership of some of the major ballet companies across the country to try to unpack that question and what we learned is that everybody is well-intentioned, but they don’t really see that there’s a problem. Until they understand that the problem is in their own hearts, they’re not going to make a difference…
ZDA: Has DTH done a lot to help change hearts and minds in some ways?
VJ: It has been our work from the very beginning and I think so—yes, but there’s still a lot of territory to cover yet.
ZDA: Let’s talk about you and your plans for the future.
VJ: People don’t really understand, but this job is really all-consuming. I don’t really have the time to think about myself, so when I wake up from my year-long sleep, I’ll be able to take time to think about what I want to do. The job just demands every inch of your mind, every inch of your body, every inch of your time. And that’s never enough. There’s always somebody waiting for you to tell them what do, to make a decision.
A hundred percent, I don’t like the word “retire” because I don’t feel like I’m done at all. What I’m doing is passing the baton for the leadership of Dance Theatre of Harlem forward. I need to take a good long rest, so I can get back and take care of the things that Virginia wants to do because I haven’t been able to do them in this long time.
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ZDA: Let’s talk about Robert. You’ve passed the baton to Robert. How did you make that choice? Why did you make that choice?
VJ: To go back to the real reason for me to make this change, [it’s that] the company, the dancers—they need a new vision [for] the work that they’re doing. I think that Robert is a brilliant, brilliant choreographer. He’s somebody who thinks deeply about the artform and how the artform can grow and what it needs to do. He can do that because he’s directly connected to Arthur Mitchell. Those two things were the reasons that Robert is the right choice for this next iteration of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Those are the real things. It was really, for me, about the art—making sure the art continues to grow and move forward.
ZDA: You mentioned the phrase “directly connected to Arthur Mitchell,” which leads me to assume that it’s not just about the art, but also about being directly connected to Arthur and to his vision when he founded DTH.
VJ: The original vision, absolutely.
ZDA: In terms of the way DTH has helped change the world of ballet and a look at the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives many of the white companies have adopted, what’s your sense of the effectiveness of that, especially considering that a number of DTH people are now in positions that would not have been open to them decades ago?
VJ: I think the murder of George Floyd made a big difference in this country…We all have the fear of “OK, after the emotion, we’ll just go backward.” But I don’t think we are going to go backward. I think the DEI initiatives in some places are making great strides, but in other places, not so much. We can’t expect it to be the same everywhere, but you know what’s going to happen? The thing that’s going to make the biggest change is a change of generations. That means younger dancers, younger directors, younger people who have experienced the world differently from those who’ve lived through the Civil Rights Movement, making the change in this country in ways that are going to increase in speed over time.