Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Enduring Impact

May 16, 2023

When Robert Garland becomes artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem on July 1, he follows in the footsteps of founder Arthur Mitchell and retiring artistic director Virginia Johnson. He’s stepping into an important role: In addition to being a leading classical company that’s toured worldwide, DTH has had a significant impact on the field of dance and the larger American cultural landscape.

Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City in 1969. Mitchell had made history as the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet, where he danced from 1956–69, with Balanchine creating ballets on him, notably roles in Agon and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Mitchell heard of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio while in Brazil in 1968, he decided to return home to start a dance school in Harlem. He enlisted the mentorship of Balanchine and the partnership of dance teacher Karel Shook.

Mitchell started the DTH School in a converted garage in Harlem, followed by the touring company, of which Virginia Johnson was a founding member. Mitchell created a haven for dancers of all colors who craved training, performance experience, and an opportunity to excel in classical ballet. 

Though DTH began touring in 1969, it had its official New York City debut in 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum, with chamber ballets choreographed by Mitchell. With Mitchell’s­ vision,­ the guidance of Balanchine, who gave Mitchell­ access­ and rights to perform his ballets, and the partnership of Shook, the foundation of the company was laid. In addition to commis­sion­ing works from Black choreographers (he named Robert Garland as DTH’s first resident choreographer in 1995), Mitchell­ updated classical ballets, such as with Creole Giselle, staged by Frederic Franklin and set in 19th-century­ Louisiana, and John Taras’ Firebird, set in a lush jungle. 

In its more than 50-year history, DTH has received international acclaim, performing in 44 states, 250 cities in North America, and in 40 countries on 6 continents. DTH’s pioneering efforts to integrate stages and spread the art of ballet through outreach programs at home and abroad made it a beacon for Black dancers worldwide. In 2004, the company went on hiatus because of financial challenges, and in 2009, Mitchell asked Johnson to bring the company back. Over the past 13 years, Johnson has led the company’s renaissance.

Watching DTH today, the impact of this trailblazing organization is clear. From its diverse international dancers to the dynamic classical and contemporary repertory, the many stars who began their careers with DTH now dancing in ballet companies around the world, and its reemergence in the global ballet scene, the company reflects today what Johnson exalts as “the prevailing sense of self-affirmation behind DTH” that was integral to Mitchell’s vision.

The impact of Dance Theatre of Harlem extends far beyond the stage. The company represents the amalgamation of culture present in evolving art forms and what it looks like when the reality of a diverse country is in fact exalted in its most expressive art form. Art, like that of DTH, is indeed the resistance to the facade of elitism representing only a portion of the population and culture. As Virginia Johnson passes the torch to Robert Garland to become the third artistic director in the company’s 54-year history, she leaves the organization poised to expand upon Arthur Mitchell’s extraordinary vision.