Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DTH.
The dancers of the new Dance Theatre of Harlem Company are psyched. “We’re pumped,” says one. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for a really long time,” says another. “I’m really excited,” says a third. The group, currently on tour, will have its New York debut in April at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.
After an eight-year hiatus when the performing company was forced to shut down in 2004, DTH returns with much of the same passion that the institution was built on. In 2009, founding member and former principal dancer Virginia Johnson was named artistic director, taking the reins from legendary co-founder Arthur Mitchell.
Johnson is passionate about the company and speaks intimately about the early years when it was like a home. In those days, DTH was just about the only place where young African-Americans like Johnson could dream of becoming a ballet dancer. Now she is giving back.
“My mission is to continue to give people the access to something that they believe in—dancers of color who don’t fit in but who will work to create something for themselves.” In a 2011 interview with Dance Magazine, Johnson said that she’d like the new company “to be a diverse company with a majority African-American. We were never exclusively African-American, even in the early days. We were about providing opportunity, because back then no one was hiring us…Now, people want to hire us, so I’m going to be in competition” (see “Dance Matters,” April 2011).
Virginia Johnson: ”The best part of my life is watching these people blossom.” Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DTH.
The number of blacks in ballet history is small, but topping the list are Janet Collins and Arthur Mitchell. Collins broke ground in 1951 as the first black prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera, and in 1955 Mitchell was the first black dancer to join New York City Ballet full-time. Mitchell would debunk the appalling notion, held by many at the time, that there could never be black ballet dancers. In 1969 he set out to prove that “there are black dancers with the physique, temperament, and stamina, and everything else it takes to produce what we call the ‘born’ ballet dancer.” At DTH, Mitchell introduced the world to such luminaries as Keith Saunders, Robert Garland, Charmaine Hunter, and Johnson.
But after more than 30 years of wowing audiences around the world, the company ran into insurmountable financial difficulties and had to go on hiatus. The DTH school, under Endalyn Taylor and overseen by executive director Laveen Naidu, never shut its doors, though. And that’s fortunate for many reasons, including that about half the new company members either trained at the school’s Professional Training Program (PTP) or are from the DTH Ensemble, begun in 2008 by Mitchell and Naidu and directed by Saunders.
The youthful Ensemble became the physical face of DTH, appearing at colleges and other venues. Meanwhile, Johnson, Naidu, and the board began preparations for the debut of the new company. This, Johnson notes, gave the dancers time to improve technically and hone their artistry. Instead of large-scale productions, smaller pieces, according to Johnson, gave the company the opportunity of “freedom with new works.” In reconstituting DTH, she has scaled back with a keen eye to the realities of our times: There are now 18 members instead of 44 as in the original company.
The buzz and the challenge were again ignited. But for Johnson, in the end, the auditions were “disappointing because it was difficult to find dancers of color at the level needed.” Quoting Mitchell, she says, “They had to hit a high C. If they couldn’t do it, then this wasn’t really the right place.” Dancers who were finally chosen hail from across the country, as well as Sierra Leone, Australia, and Brazil. Some have danced with companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet, BalletMet Columbus, and the Australian Ballet.
“My heart still bleeds for the ones who didn’t make it,” says Johnson. It was “tough, especially since DTH is about inspiring young dancers.” Johnson concludes, however, that “we are on the path we began. We said we would bring the company back in three years, and we have. We will bring DTH to its full glory—but it’s not a done deal.” Sincerely she adds, “The best part of my life is watching these people blossom. I’m so proud of them.”
Da’Von Doane (foreground) in Gloria, by DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland, at Vineyard Arts Project. Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DTH.
And who are the dancers of the new company? Dance Magazine spoke with three of them—all as committed and enthusiastic as Johnson.
With her long, elegant line, Gabrielle Salvatto, 23, had been training at DTH since she was 7. A Bronx-bred girl, she also attended the School of American Ballet, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, and the Juilliard School. After graduating Juilliard, she joined DTH’s PTP program for a year. Salvatto remembers the long company audition process in New York well. “I think they were surprised because so many dancers showed up, so they had to break up the audition into two days.” Though it was always a dream for Salvatto to join DTH, now with her debut looming she jokes, “I’m freaking out a little bit.” One reason could be that this is her first time dancing a principal role. Salvatto says this debut is humbling because she sees herself as “a role model for young dancers of color.”
Da’Von Doane, 24, was a standout member of the DTH Ensemble. Unquestionably a strong stage presence, Doane absorbs the most intricate movement, molds it to his liking, and delivers it with verve. Growing up in Maryland, Doane was one of very few dancers of color on track to become a classical dancer at the Salisbury Dance Academy. He also studied at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, and the Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Theatre. In 2008, he joined the DTH Ensemble. Now as a member of the professional company, he hopes to help retain the legacy. He says he “wants people to see DTH as the leading organization it was before.”
Ashley Murphy is an exquisite chameleon in her ability to effortlessly shift from an elegant épaulement in classical works to sharp and piercing angles in contemporary works. For Murphy, 27, DTH was always a destination. She remembers seeing a DTH performance when she was only 3 and being sure that that was the place she wanted to be. Years later, seeing Mitchell and Johnson on YouTube cemented her ambition. A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, she was a member of Louisiana Dance Theatre and later trained in New York at the Joffrey Ballet School and The Ailey School. In 2002 she joined DTH’s Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble, a group that performed in local schools. Murphy rose through the ranks as a member of PTP and graduated to DTH proper under Mitchell for one year before it disbanded in 2004. She returned to join the Ensemble when it was founded in 2008. Excelling in a range of roles, she was nominated for a Clive Barnes Award last fall.
For the New York debut, Johnson says, “I want to bring the company into the 21st century.” She promises an eclectic repertoire that includes the Balanchine classic Agon (1957), the Black Swan pas de deux staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, and contemporary works, including resident choreographer Robert Garland’s Return (1999) and Gloria (2012), Helen Pickett’s When Love (2012), Donald Byrd’s Contested Space (2012), and a restaging of Ailey’s The Lark Ascending (1972).
Finally, notes Johnson, “The story that I hope Dance Theatre of Harlem will tell again is of the power of the arts to transform lives. We look forward to inspiring a new generation of dancers.”
Charmaine Patricia Warren writes on dance for The Amsterdam News and teaches at The Ailey School, Ailey/Fordham, Hunter College, and Kean University.
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.