After an eight-year hiatus, the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company is back on the road, and its first stop is Louisville.
Founded in New York City in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theatre of Harlem is a rigorous ballet training program with an internationally-acclaimed professional dance company committed to racial diversity in ballet. The organization struggled financially in the years after September 11, 2001, and suspended its company in 2004.
“The Dance Theatre of Harlem Company is being reborn,” says artistic director Virginia Johnson. “We came into rehearsals in August of this year.”
The company’s new tour kicks off Saturday at the Kentucky Center, where a mixed repertory program will include two world premiere ballets—“Gloria,” inspired by Black church culture in Harlem, and Helen Pickett’s “When Love,” a love duet set to Philip Glass.
“Note that I call it a ‘duet’ and not a pas de deux, because it is about two contemporary human beings who are experiencing what it is to fall in love and what love actually means,” says Johnson. “It’s not grandiose, not overly romantic. It’s human scale.”
Resident choreographer Robert Garland created “Gloria,” which Johnson calls “the curtain-raiser” for the reborn company.
“I asked Robert to make something that would be built on this company, these dancers, who have come together to make the future of this organization,” she says.
The program will also include “Return,” a ballet by Garland backed by the funk and soul of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, that will include young dancers from the community, including the Louisville Ballet School. The mixture of classic and contemporary is a hallmark of the dance company. Johnson says she programs for a public that might not necessarily think the ballet is for them.
“I have a very strong passion that the art form of ballet is an art form that can speak a contemporary language, can speak to a contemporary audience,” says Johnson. “So as I put together the first year repertoire, I wanted to make sure we had something that was perhaps—yes—accessible, but something that also was going to bring the idea of using this ballet vocabulary to tell a contemporary story.”
It’s a philosophy Johnson knows well—she’s a founding member and former principal ballerina of the company. Johnson says when Mitchell decided to retire three years ago and called to ask her to fill his shoes, she couldn’t say no.
“Of course I did a giant gulp, because Arthur Mitchell is a towering figure in the field of dance,” she says. “It meant a lot to me that he would entrust his baby to me.”
Her strong sense of legacy as a founding member of the company is bolstered by her national perspective on dance. Johnson spent ten years as editor of Pointe magazine, a position that gave her an opportunity to take the wide view of contemporary ballet.
“It gave me a lot of ideas of how ballet can remain true to itself and how it can remain the exquisite art form it is, but also how to make it more relevant to today’s audiences,” she says.
Now she can try out some of those ideas on a national stage. Johnson believes the eight years Dance Theatre of Harlem stayed absent from the national dance scene had an impact across the country. When she toured the U.S. holding auditions, she found fewer dancers of color performing at the level she needed for her company.
“I think that there is a generation of dancers that were missed because there was no Dance Theatre of Harlem for eight years,” she says. “There were dancers who may have aspired to be a ballerina or a premiere danseur, but who were not encouraged where they were training because there was no place that they thought, traditionally, they would be able to go.”
“So they might have gotten shunted off to modern dance or just shunted off to another career entirely,” Johnson adds. “The presence of Dance Theatre of Harlem on the scene actually created the idea in a generation of young people that yes, I can do this. Without us performing on the stages, I think we lost some people.”
Johnson is aware of the importance of visible mentors for traditionally under-represented groups, and the power of a developing artist to see herself reflected in the highest echelons of the discipline. She remembers being eight years old, already a serious ballet student, and having a revelation one night at the ballet.
“I didn’t really notice that I didn’t look like everyone else in the classroom, because I was so maniacal about doing this,” she says. “But I remember very much sitting in the audience and seeing a performance by the Martha Graham Company. And Mary Hinkson came on stage, and I had a physical sensation because I recognized myself in her and I didn’t realize I hadn’t seen myself before.”
While in town, the company will also visit five Jefferson County schools and the Kentucky Center to teach movement and dance master classes to area dance students. Johnson says the company decided to launch its new tour in Louisville partly on the strength of the community’s arts education programs.
“It’s been a philosophical truth of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, from the beginning, that we’re not just about performance,” she says. “We’re about impacting lives, giving young people the ability to have a good life by instilling some very important life skills.”