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Dance Theatre of Harlem - More Resources

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Dance Theatre of Harlem: A Classical Ballet Company

By Thomas F. DeFrantz

Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), founded on August 15, 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, established the first permanent, professional, academy-rooted ballet company comprised predominantly of black artists. Mitchell created DTH with a three-tiered mission: to operate a school to train young people in ballet and its affiliated arts; to serve the Harlem community and others with educational and artistic programs; and to present a world-class ballet company with a demanding and diverse repertory. The DTH Company enjoyed its official New York debut on January 8, 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum, in a triumphant program of three chamber ballets created by Mitchell.  The company grew from strength to strength, and definitively debunked opinions that black people could not dance ballet. By 2004, DTH had become a world-renowned company with forty dancers, one hundred and twenty-five ballets in its repertory, an international touring schedule, and an associated school and operational center in Harlem.

DTH's original achievement came amid on-going speculation from many quarters about the "suitability" of African American presence in classical ballet. In 1955, Arthur Mitchell had endured similar skepticism surrounding his arrival as a full-time artist of the New York City Ballet. His outstanding technique, dramatic abilities, and charismatic warmth propelled him to the rank of principal dancer during his fifteen-year tenure with that company. Choreographer George Balanchine created many important roles for Mitchell, including the central pas de deux in the modernist work Agon (1957) and the impish Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1967). Mitchell remained aware of the opportunity that had made his achievement possible, and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. compelled Mitchell to turn his expertise toward helping other black artists and the Harlem community that had nurtured him.

DTH began its school operations in a church basement. In its first year, the school grew from its initial thirty students to an enrollment of four hundred, and by 1972 the DTH school moved to its permanent home at 466 West 152nd Street, where training in dance, choreography, and music was supplemented by outreach programs bringing dance to senior citizens and children with special needs. Early in the school’s history, Mitchell created an exceptional lecture-demonstration about classical ballet training that continues to be offered, and DTH has always been exceptionally strong in its arts-in-education offerings. In 1992 the school launched a “Dancing Through Barriers” initiative that includes teaching artist residencies, in-school performances, tours of the DTH facilities, and an innovative Firebird curriculum based upon the ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed for DTH by John Taras.

Repertory

DTH's extensive repertory is unmatched in its diversity, and is especially important for its incorporation of choreographies by artists of color.  The repertory has included many works by Balanchine, who served on the original DTH Board of Directors, including Serenade (1935),  The Four Temperaments (1946), Concerto Barocco (1948),  Alllegro Brillante (1956),  Agon (1957), and Bugaku (1963). Programmatic works that explore a theme suggested by their musical score, including Mitchell’s Rhythmetron (1968) and Alvin Ailey's The River (1970) , to a score by Duke Ellington, have enhanced the company’s repertory, as have works that explore African American experience, including Louis Johnson's Forces of Rhythm (1972) and Geoffrey Holder's Dougla(1974), created in collaboration with DTH conductor Tania Leon.  These latter two works were created for DTH and have been strongly identified with the company; each was filmed for presentation on public television.

DTH acquired a remarkable selection of works by Ballets Russes choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, including Les Noces (1923),  Les Biches (1924), and Rondo Capriccioso (1952). DTH also excelled in its own versions of classic ballets, including a sumptuous, Geoffrey Holder-designed production of Stravinsky's Firebird (1982) choreographed by John Taras, and a stunning Creole-inspired staging of Giselle (1984) created by Mitchell, designer Carl Michel, and artistic associate Frederic Franklin.  This highly-acclaimed Giselle set the Romantic-era story in the society of free black plantation owners in pre-Civil War Louisiana.  DTH also produced celebrated revivals of dramatic ballets, including Agnes de Mille's 1948 The Fall River Legend and Valerie Bettis's 1952 A Streetcar Named Desire, both of which have starred principal ballerina Virginia Johnson.  Contemporary ballets created or revived for the company include works by John Alleyne, Talley Beatty, Garth Fagan, Frederic Franklin, Robert Garland, Augustus Van Heerden, Alonzo King, Laveen Naidu, Glen Tetley, and Billy Wilson.

Affiliated Artists

DTH artists routinely bring an expressive versatility to their performances, one rooted in classical vocabulary and marked by a surety of attack and speed.  Over its history, many distinguished classical dance artists have been associated with the company, including Lydia Arbaca, Roman Brooks, Karen Brown, Stephanie Dabney, Alicia Graf, Lorraine Graves, Yvonne Hall, Charmaine Hunter, Tai Jiminez, Christina Johnson, Virginia Johnson, Clover Mathis, Ronald Perry, Cassandra Phifer, Walter Raines, Sheila Rohan, Judith Rotardier, Paul Russell, Eddie J. Shellman, Lowell Smith, Endalyn Taylor, Mel Tomlinson, Judy Tyrus, Donald Williams, and Sara Yarborough. 

Company co-founder Karel Shook, a former teacher at the Dutch National Ballet, instituted a rigorous, and accelerated, classical curriculum for the school, documented in his book Elements of Classical Ballet Technique (1977). Other teachers associated with the school have included Martha Graham dancer Mary Hinkson; former New York City Ballet star Tanaquil LeClerq; Alvin Ailey associate James Truitte, notables Thelma Hill and Pearl Reynolds, as well as Ron Alexander, Marie Brooks, Iris Cloud, Kathy Grant, Gloria Jackson, Celia Marino, Keith Saunders, and Valerie Taylor. Longtime costumer and wardrobe mistress Zelda Wynn (Valdes) sustained a career and trained many dancers in the basics of costume care.  Among stellar musical personalities affiliated with the company, Havana-born Tania León led a distinguished roster that includes Milton Rosenstock, Boyd Staplin, and David LeMarche.

International Reputation

The international celebrity achieved by DTH began with a Caribbean performance tour in 1970, an engagement at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1971, and an auspicious 1974 London debut at Sadler's Wells.  In 1988, DTH embarked on a five-week tour of the USSR, playing sold-out performances in Moscow, Tbilisi, and Leningrad, where the company received a standing ovation at the famed Kirov Theatre.  In 1992, DTH successfully performed in Johannesburg, South Africa, and in 2000, the company performed in the People’s Republic of China. 

Financial Stability and Future

As with any large professional arts organization in the United States, financial concerns have always troubled the company. For example, in 1990, faced with a $1.7 million dollar deficit, DTH was forced to cancel its New York season and lay off dancers, technicians, and administrative staff for a six-month period. The company rebounded, and in 1994 completed a $6 million expansion project that doubled classroom and administrative space and confirmed the DTH commitment to provide access to the disciplined training necessary for a career in classical ballet. In 2004, after a thirty-fifth Anniversary tour and performances in Greece just before the summer Olympics, the company went on an extended hiatus because of financial constraints.  The DTH school continued to offer classes, under the executive directorship of Laveen Naidu, and in 2009, former DTH prima ballerina Virigina Johnson became artistic director of the company.  Naidu and Johnson have worked carefully to build the company’s capacity within contemporary economic conditions, and announced auditions for a revived company to begin performances in 2013.

The archives of the company, housed at DTH’s rehearsal studio and office complex at 466 West 152nd Street, New York, include an essential and irreplaceable body of documents related to the genesis and growth of a premiere American arts institution.  These expansively-populated archives offer evidence of one of the most remarkable stories in American dance, the creation of a classical ballet company inflected by African American artistry.


Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor of Dance and African and African American Studies at Duke University, and director of SLIPPAGE: Performance|Culture|Technology in residence at Duke. He is the editor of Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (2002) and the author of Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (2004).   He directs the dance history and theory program at the Hollins University/American Dance Festival MFA Program. A tap dancer and theater director, for many years he organized the dance history program at the Alvin Ailey School.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Deans, Joselli, Ed.D. "Black ballerinas dancing on the edge: An analysis of the cultural politics in Delores Browne's and Raven Wilkinson's careers, 1954--1985." Dissertation, Temple University, 2001, 400 pp.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. "Ballet in Black: Louis Johnson and Vernacular Humor," in Dancing Bodies, Living Histories: New Writings about Dance and Culture. Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn, eds.  Banff: Banff Press, 2000: 178-195.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. "Arthur Mitchell," "Ballet," "Dance Theater of Harlem," "Louis Johnson," "Arthur Mitchell," "Mel Tomlinson," "Billy Wilson" (subject entries). Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. MacMillan Press, 1995.

Gaiser, Carrie. "Caught Dancing: Hybridity, Stability, and Subversion in Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle." Theatre Journal 58:2 (May 2006): 269-289.

Ghent, Henri.  "Dance Theatre of Harlem: A Study of Triumph over Adversity." The Crisis June 1980: 199-205.

Hodgoson, Moira and Victor Thomas.  Quintet: Five American Dance Companies. New York: William Morrow, 1976.

Kendall, Elizabeth. "'Home' to Russia: Dance Theatre of Harlem on Tour in the Soviet Union." Ballet Review 16: 4 (Winter 1989): 3-49.

Latham, Jacqueline Quinn M.  "A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists - Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey - in the Idioms of Ballet and Modern Dance, Respectively."  Doctoral Dissertation, Texas Women's University, 1973.

Maynard, Olga.  "Arthur Mitchell & the Dance Theater of Harlem." Dance Magazine. New York. Mar 1970, p 52-64.

Maynard, Olga. "Dance Theatre of Harlem: Arthur Mitchell's 'Dark and Brilliant Splendor.'" Dance Magazine (May 1975): 52-64.

Mitchell, Arthur et al.  "NYCB and DTH: Anniversary Reflections." Ballet Review 22 (Fall 1994): 14-28.

Pierangali, Christina Cottman.  Doctoral dissertation study of the Creole Giselle, not completed.

Shook, Karel.  Elements of Classical Ballet Technique as Practiced in the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. New York: Dance Horizons, 1977.

Tobias, Tobi. Arthur Mitchell. With illustrations by Carole Byard. Crowell, 1975. Illustrated children's book.)

Moving Image

Dance Theatre of Harlem. Thomas Grimm, Director, Kultur Video, VHS 1989, DVD 2000. Includes Robert North's Troy Game, Lester Horton's The Beloved and Arthur Mitchell's John Henry.

Dance Theater of Harlem: Creole Giselle with Virginia Johnson, Eddie Shellman, Lorraine Graves, Lowell Smith. VHS 1987, DVD 2005.

Dance Theatre of Harlem: Fall River Legend. VHS 1990, DVD 2002.

DTH has also appeared on several PBS Dance In America programs, including episodes televised in 1980, 1983 (including Firebird) and 1986 (including A Streetcar Named Desire and selections from "Sylvia Pas de Deux," by Frederic Franklin; and "Bele," by Geoffrey Holder). The company also appears briefly in the Sidney Poitier film A Piece of the Action (1977).

Online Resources

Dance Theatre of Harlem website:

http://dancetheatreofharlem.org/