During its heyday, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s name often evoked its signature ballet The Firebird, the story of a magical bird who helps a Russian prince vanquish an evil wizard. Now, a new, streamlined Dance Theatre of Harlem is more likely to be associated with another fire bird. Like the mythical phoenix, Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) is rising from the ashes of its previous incarnation and Seattle is one of the first places with the chance to judge the success of its rebirth.
Before DTH took an eight-year hiatus in 2004, it had appeared here many times, most notably under the aegis of Seattle Theatre Group (STG). Those performances always had an exceptionally festive air about them, especially when co-founder Arthur Mitchell visited with the troupe. Through his own performing career at New York City Ballet and then the success of DTH, Mitchell was able to put to rest the notion that blacks couldn’t dance ballet.
One of the hallmarks of any DTH performance was the spectacular dancing of the only largely African-American ballet company in America. Whether offering Firebird, the classical Giselle, Balanchine’s Apollo or ballets by young, contemporary choreographers, DTH’s accomplished dancers brought verve, technical proficiency, and theatrical flair to every performance.
It was therefore with shock and sadness that the dance world greeted news eight years ago that the company was shutting down due to a crushing $2.3 million debt. Fortunately, Mitchell was able to keep the professional training program alive and in 2009 came up with a five-year plan to resurrect DTH as a performing troupe, albeit in a downsized form. Mitchell asked his former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson to sign on as artistic director and Johnson began the challenging but, in her words, ”amazing” task of rebuilding the troupe that has meant so much to her.
“I never expected to love it as much as I do,” she explained by phone from New York. "It’s a bone-crushing, difficult job but there’s a lot of joy — working with young people and seeing them blossom, watching a dancer do something they didn’t think they could, imagining what might happen and then seeing it happen on the stage.”
Funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, and others has enabled DTH to mount this first season of the downsized company — 18 versus 44 dancers — with stops in Louisville, Seattle, and a few other cities before its New York premiere this coming April. Johnson admits it hasn’t been easy finding dancers of color with the ballet grounding worthy of DTH’s name, describing last year’s auditions in major cities as “sobering.”
“I saw that in the eight years there hadn’t been a DTH, few black dancers had been able to rise to DTH’s level of excellence," she said. "There were some talented young people but no place for them to go and I didn’t find the number [of possible company members] I had anticipated.”
For the new company, Johnson looked first to the dancers of DTH II, the small ensemble that Mitchell had created during the hiatus. She was able to flesh out the new professional troupe with a sufficient new talent from her auditions in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York that, at least based on reviews from Louisville, the new DTH dazzles. Although it will be a little while before the this troupe is able to mount a Firebird or Giselle, Johnson says the company’s neoclassical roots are evident in every work it’s presenting, beginning with Robert Garland’s new Gloria.
Garland, resident choreographer and former DTH principal dancer, created Gloria specifically for this first tour. Set to music by Francis Poulenc, it will be performed here with live actors and musicians (as opposed to taped performers at its Louisville premiere), just one of the “special” elements that STG wanted to offer to local audiences. Another is the world premiere of John Alleyne’s Far and Close. Alleyne, the former artistic director of Ballet BC, is noted for the complexity of his choreography, so Far and Close should provide an excellent chance to assess the technical skill of the new company.
Rounding out the Seattle program is Donald Byrd’s Contested Space, a series of solos and pas de deux set to music by the Brazilian electronic composer Amon Robin. The smaller DTH II performed Contested Space, which Johnson calls a “firecracker work,” in New York this past February but Seattle will be the first place the newly revamped professional company presents it. Byrd is well known to local audiences for his work at Spectrum Dance Theatre, where his pieces have often veered into “movement theater,” so it will be interesting to see the ballet-trained DTH dancers in a “pure dance” Byrd work.
Despite the emphasis on new ballets for this inaugural season, Johnson is confident that Arthur Mitchell’s legacy will live on. “First and foremost, DTH has been a multicultural company, not exclusively African-American, but predominantly made up of people of color. We wear brown tights and brown pointe shoes and that’s important as we talk about ballet in the 21st century. And we’re a neo-classical company, drawing on the Mitchell/Balanchine base; we relate to the music, to the syncopation, to not moving straight on the beat.”
But Johnson is realistic about the challenges ahead, especially the difficulty of touring, which has always been DTH’s bread and butter. She is acutely aware that the number of presenting organizations has dwindled in the last decade and that dances audiences are becoming more segmented. “A lot of people today think ballet is ‘frou-frou,’” says Johnson,” and there’s a hardening of the line between ballet and other forms of dance. My goal is to help people ‘get ballet,’ to understand and appreciate what’s happening onstage. And when people say, ‘that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ everything is worth it.”
If you go: Dance Theatre of Harlem, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16-17, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Avenue. Tickets $25-73 at www.stgpresents.org, through Tickets.com or by phone at 1-877-784-4849 or TTY: 1-888-331-6774.