What Dance Theatre of Harlem Means Today
As Dance Theatre of Harlem turns 50, Arthur Mitchell's company has proven to be just as tenacious and resilient as he was. At times it looked like it wouldn't make it. But with the spirit of the phoenix it rises again.
Yet, as the company moves forward after Mitchell's passing, it battles with the expectations of what DTH should be, what it should look like and what stories it should tell. In effect, who does today's DTH belong to, and who does it serve? If ballet companies truly improve diversity, what would DTH's relevance be?
"I feel like we are still trying to live up to the legacy of the old company," says Da'Von Doane, who first joined in 2008 as a member of the DTH Ensemble. "We are trying to find ourselves as artists, and establish our own level of artistic excellence, but it's difficult to feel the weight of history. It's an incredible responsibility as black classical artists to forge a new identity for this company."
Mitchell began DTH—along with co-founder Karel Shook—as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He wanted to continue King's work for equality in his way: through the arts.
Not only would DTH show the world black elegance and artistic proficiency, it would be a lighthouse to the children of Harlem (and beyond), showcasing a world of possibilities beyond the stigmatization of their blackness. DTH served as an oasis of opportunity, for decades employing dancers other organizations would not entertain and training thousands who might not otherwise have had access.
Derek Brockington (foreground) and Anthony Santos (in back)
Then, in 2004, the company was forced into hiatus due to a $2.3 million debt. Mitchell beseeched his former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson to reboot DTH five years later. "I never wanted to be an artistic director. But when Mr. Mitchell calls you and says he wants you to do it…" says Johnson with a chuckle.
The burning question was, What would the new iteration look like? What could it look like given the financial constraints?
DTH had built its brand on signature full-length ballets like Dougla, Firebird and Creole Giselle. But Johnson and then–executive director Laveen Naidu determined that the company could only hire 18 dancers.
"We couldn't be 50 dancers with two trucks' worth of scenery and costumes," says Johnson. "That world didn't exist anymore." To generate new rep, Johnson created Harlem Dance Works 2.0, a choreographic incubator which commissioned artists like Robert Garland, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Helen Pickett.
DTH dancer Amanda Smith
Johnson respects DTH's profound history—she helped write it, after all, having been a founding member and becoming its star until she retired in 1997. But for her, DTH is larger than its history. "I want to think about this art form of classical ballet. I love it. It's powerful and beautiful. But it's not fairies and princesses; it needs to talk to people now about the lives that they are living now. It needs to give them contemporary inspiration, not antique inspiration."
Yet one of the company's biggest recent hits was reviving Geoffrey Holder's Dougla from 1974—one of DTH's most culturally rooted works, rich with pageantry and mystic. This resonated with Johnson. "What I came to understand was that people wanted the more familiar kinds of ballets."
Today, DTH is once again a standard-bearer both as a diverse ballet company and as a leader in the diversity conversation. In partnership with the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA, the company recently launched The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet, a three-year program to support the advancement of racial equity in professional ballet companies.
Still, even now that so many companies are working to increase diversity, dancer Amanda Smith says it feels very different to perform with DTH. "I love not feeling like a prize or a trophy in a company to show that they have diversity," says Smith, who auditioned for DTH five times before she landed a contract last season. "Sometimes you feel like a circus animal—'We have a black dancer.' When I came to DTH it was just like, 'I am just a dancer.' "
Clockwise from top left: Kellye Saunders, Christopher McDaniel, Stephanie Rae Williams, Alexandra Hutchinson, Dustin James, Amanda Smith, Derek Brockington, Virginia Johnson,Yinet Fernandez, Choong Hoon Lee, Da'Von Doane, Daphne Lee, Dylan Santos, Crystal Serrano, Anthony Santos, Lindsey Croop
Catch the Company in Action:
DTH is celebrating its 50th anniversary in style, touring 39 cities over 18 months. The company will present commissioned works by Robert Garland, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Pam Tanowitz and Claudia Schreier. The opening night celebration at New York City Center in April will highlight excerpts from some of the works that set DTH apart in its early days: Forces of Rhythm (Louis Johnson), Firebird (John Taras), Creole Giselle (Frederic Franklin after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot) and Dougla (Geoffrey Holder), plus excerpts from new favorite Return (Robert Garland) and classics like Petipa's Le Corsaire and the work that put Mitchell on the map: George Balanchine's Agon. Tones II, a reimagining of a work Mitchell created in 1970—which he set on today's DTH dancers just prior to his passing last September—will also be performed during the City Center season.
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.