the next generation of Dance as Art

Dance Theatre of Harlem Celebrates 45 Years After Coming Back from the Brink

Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 2014 run at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the second New York season after a nine-year hiatus, drew to a satisfying close on the afternoon of Sunday, April 27th with a well-chosen triple bill. The beloved troupe, America’s first African American ballet company, was forced to go on hiatus in 2004 when it announced its $2.3 million debt. Now under the able artistic direction of Virginia Johnson, who was a DTH principal ballerina for 28 years, the resurrected national treasure is dedicated to carrying on the mission of founders Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook to “present a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.”

For the most part, with only 18 dancers rather than the 44 that were on the roster in 2004, this incarnation of DTH is succeeding in doing exactly that. However, the opening piece for the matinée that I saw was in fact too “demanding” in that the artists are not quite up to the challenge of Petipa’s purely classical choreography for “Pas de Dix”, an excerpt from “Raymonda”. The highlight of this offering was a witty and technically proficient rendition of the first solo variation by the very talented Stephanie Rae Williams. The other solo variations were quite good as well but the ensembles looked under rehearsed, particularly the section for four men.

Yet in the second piece, the company more than redeemed itself. With choreography by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis and a story line by dramaturge Thomas F. DeFranz, “past-carry-forward” tells the history of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North. I was spellbound by this powerful and moving tribute -- in particular the closing section of abstract movement, albeit on pointe for the ladies, that showed the dancers at their very best. This ballet had its world premiere on October 17th 2013, a testament to the fact that the rebirth of DTH has nurtured innovation.  

The uplifting closer was “Gloria”, to music by Poulenc for orchestra and chorus using the text of the Roman Catholic “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. Choreographer Robert Garland paid homage to the spiritual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance with this impressive work, which is danced by the entire company along with seven children from the Dance Theatre of Harlem School Cabriole Program. The kids were adorable, with beaming smiles, and they performed reasonably well considering that they must have had only one or two years of training. Seeing them was a welcome reminder that the school founded by Mitchell and Shook in 1969 in a garage in Harlem is once again giving the youngsters in Mitchell’s home neighborhood the chance to learn classical ballet. In addition, the company is continuing its proud tradition of outreach with the “Dancing Through Barriers” program that presents assemblies and conducts residencies in schools.

I join the rest of the dance world in a heartfelt round of virtual applause on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, an institution that has come back from the brink in a leaner but encouragingly adept iteration that promises to endure.

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