Only One Week Left to See the DTH Exhibit

May 4, 2009

Actually, not even a week. It’s called “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts” and it’s up till May 9. It gives a great overview of this major company that is sadly now on haitus. However, after the exciting news that Virginia Johnson will be artistic director, there is hope for a resurrection.

Talking about Virginia, the exhibit shows video of clips of DTH’s rep, and you see her in the Creole Giselle—pure-hearted and with beautiful port de bras as a wili. And to the right is a big display case with costumes, and one costume is blowing in the wind—where the wind comes from is hard to know. But it’s Virginia’s Giselle-as-wili costume, and it’s an eerie reminder that she is coming back to the company.

    Other display cases include costumes for Geoffrey Holder’s magnificent Dougla, Fokine’s sexy Schéhérazade, and Valerie Bettis’ rarely seen Streetcar Named Desire.

    One of the things that struck me, in photos and TV clips of the early days of the company, was the verve and beauty of Arthur Mitchell himself. I never saw him dance with NYCB, but in the photos you see not only a gorgeous body and face, but the slightest hint of a smile whenever he is dancing. And later, in the 70s and 80s, when he is leading lec-dems with children in the audience, as the dancers were doing plain tendus at the barre, he was jazzing it up in his hips and voice to make it fun for the kids. His sheer energy and outsize talent, whether kidding around or coaching his dancers, jumped out of these videos.

    In one news clip, Mitchell tells of the first time NYCB was performing on TV with him, the first black principal dancer, in the company. The TV producer wanted to get rid of him, but Balanchine said, “If he doesn’t dance, NYCB doesn’t dance.” Yay, Mr. B!

    Among other things, DTH revolutionized the color of ballet tights and pointe shoes. Instead of pink, the women wore varying shades of beige or tan to match their own skin. On one of the posted explanatory notes, principal dancer Judy Tyrus is quoted as saying that they each used a “secret potion” to match the tights and pointe shoes to their skin. This was just one of the ways that DTH adapted ballet on its own terms.

    Many other goodies greet you, including photos of Freddie Franklin, Glen Tetley, and Alexandra Danilova working with the company. Also there are striking posters, both for the company and the school, which, blessedly, has kept going all this time.

    If you can get to Manhattan, go to this exhibit. It’s at the NY Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Vincent Astor Gallery (Amsterdam St. entrance). DTH is a big part of our past, and hopefully a big part of our future as well.


Photo courtesy NYPL.