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Dance Theatre of Harlem

A new chapter

 

 

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.

 

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