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By Wendy Perron
At a showing for arts presenters in the Dance Theatre of Harlem studios last January, Virginia Johnson told the audience, “Excellence is…elusive.” As she was speaking, her slight épaulement, gracious manner, and swiveling hands hinted at her own past excellence as a dancer.
The buzz is optimistic now that Virginia Johnson has taken the helm of DTH. Although she has complete reverence for what she calls the “dynamic force” that DTH was for more than 30 years, she also has new ideas. But she’s taking it slow.
It was two years ago that she agreed to inherit the mantle from legendary founder Arthur Mitchell. “I said yes with all kinds of trepidation and uncertainty,” she recounted recently. “But I knew I had to do it.” She says it feels like coming home. “I can’t tell you how much I’m loving it. This is where I grew up, and this is the place where I was given an opportunity. And it means so much to me to create opportunities for another generation.”
Resuscitating a company that’s been on hiatus for seven years will be quite a challenge. “Figuring out how to make it really fit now, 21st century, and not lose anything of what is beautiful about it—that’s a wonderful, terrible puzzle to work on.” (The DTH school, run by Endalyn Taylor and overseen by executive director Laveen Naidu, never stopped.)
One of her first initiatives is Harlem Dance Works 2.0, which has commissioned new duets by three very different choreographers: Robert Garland, Darrell Grand Moultrie, and Helen Pickett. Johnson arranged for them to work with top-notch dancers borrowed from other companies, including Misty Copeland (see Dec. 2010 cover story). The dances were shown in progress to the local community with the assistance of a grant for audience development. (I served on a panel at two of these events.) She is less interested, she says, in the usual dance audience than in “an audience that is new and curious and doesn’t have an expectation.” Indeed, those present, encouraged to express their reactions, had a sense of discovery. It didn’t hurt that these were well-crafted, beautifully danced duets.
This month will see the second installment of HDW 2.0, with a residency by Thaddeus Davis (a 2002 “25 to Watch”) and Tanya Wideman-Davis.
Another initiative is the “whole-dancer curriculum,” based on Johnson’s belief that dancers should be more self-sufficient. DTH’s professional training program now offers workshops in nutrition, injury prevention, music and visual arts, and career advice.
What will the future DTH dancers look like? “I’d like for it 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.” Acknowledging that things have opened up for black dancers, she says, “Now, people want to hire us, so I’m going to be in competition.”
As for the repertoire, it will be a mix of Balanchine, Ailey, and Dove, along with living choreographers like Alonzo King, Robert Moses, Francesca Harper, and Alexei Ratmansky.
Spending 10 years as editor of Pointe magazine, Johnson says, broadened her perspective. “It gave me a good sense of reality, economic reality, and how you have to balance the different aspects that are part of your business.”
Members of the DTH Ensemble, a group of 15 talented young dancers, may be invited to join the company if they can, as Johnson says, “cut the mustard.” Public auditions will be held in 2012 for a season that starts the following summer. A national tour is planned, and then in April 2013, the new DTH opens in New York City. Why such a long preparation time? “It gives us a chance to build something that has legs you can stand on. I think economics has led us to commit too much too fast, and then it doesn’t work. So we’re trying to find a way to get something enduring.”—Wendy Perron
Virginia Johnson teaching the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble. Photo by Judy Tyrus, courtesy DTH.