In 1984, Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell took one of ballet's oldest surviving ballets, Giselle, and gave it a uniquely American twist: He moved the ballet's setting from medieval Europe to an Afro-Creole community in 1840s Louisiana. The resulting production, Creole Giselle, featured an all-Black cast and was hailed by critics as a groundbreaking achievement. While the ballet hasn't been performed for quite some time, it was filmed for television in 1987, starring current DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson in the title role.
This weekend, we'll have a chance to witness this important work. On Saturday, June 6, at 8 pm EDT, the company will stream Creole Giselle on its Facebook page and YouTube channel as part of its DTH on Demand Virtual Ballet Series. And throughout the week, DTH is hosting preview events on its social media platforms with original cast members and current company artists.
Mitchell got the idea to move the ballet's location after a company tour to New Orleans. "One of our hosts invited us into a study and showed us this amazing collection of history," remembers Johnson. "Louisiana was a French colony, and treated slavery differently. There were free Blacks who were wealthy and had plantations and who themselves had slaves. They intermingled with the rest of society."
"For Arthur that was a real 'aha' moment," Johnson continues. "There could be some truth to a DTH Giselle that couldn't be reproduced anywhere else."Mitchell tasked Ballets Russes luminary Frederic Franklin with staging the ballet, which remains true to the choreography and plot of the original by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. "The only thing that's different is the setting," says Johnson. The production's lush sets and costumes, designed by Carl Michel, depict whitewashed porches of Giselle's Southern farm village in Act I, and the foggy, swampy Louisiana bayou in Act II.
The ballet's Creole characters reflect the hierarchy of Louisiana's free Black people at the time, where class was based on how many generations one's family was removed from slavery. Giselle is a field hand, while Albert (aka Albrecht) is the son of a wealthy aristocrat. The history and contributions of Louisiana's free Afro-Creole population are often overlooked. "I still don't think Americans are aware of how diverse Black history is," says Johnson. "They think it's that one single slave story."
Lorraine Graves and Lowell Smith in Creole Giselle
Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives
The timing of Saturday's streaming event feels especially poignant, as protests continue nationwide over the deaths of George Floyd and other people of color at the hands of police brutality. Johnson sees an eerie parallel between now and 1968, when Mitchell founded DTH shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to prove that Black dancers could excel at classical ballet. "People may feel like there's been no progress and we're in exactly the same place," says Johnson. "We're not. But there are institutional inconsistencies that have been part of American culture from the beginning that have not gotten resolved, and those things have to be fixed."
For Mitchell, who died in 2018, mounting the full-length Creole Giselle was one of his crowning achievements. "He saw the power of this work as doubling his efforts of having people understand that ballet belongs to everyone," says Johnson. "It was the most concrete way he could express that."
In anticipation of Saturday night's broadcast, DTH is offering a host of preview events—and having some fun, too. Check out the full schedule below, and watch today's artists of DTH perform a quarantined version of Giselle's variation from Act 1 (produced by company artist Stephanie Rae Williams).
- Thursday, June 4 at 8 pm: Giselle Jeopardy – Company member Lindsey Donnell hosts this fun, interactive Jeopardy game on Zoom.
- Friday, June 5 at 3 pm: What's the Step? – Company artist Stephanie Rae Williams teaches Giselle's Act I variation live on DTH's Instagram page.
- Friday, June 5 at 8 pm: Becoming Giselle – Tune in to DTH's YouTube channel and Facebook page to hear more about what goes into building a character and dancing a principal role. Interviews include past Giselles Virginia Johnson and Kellye Saunders as well as current company members.