Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Brian Callan, Courtesy DTH.

What to Watch: This New PBS Doc Tracks the Creation of DTH's Work Honoring the Arrival of Africans in North America

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.


The film, narrated by former DTH principal and current Norfolk's Governor's School of the Arts instructor Lorraine Graves, is split into two parts. The first half focuses on Alston's process working with 20 high school students from GSA on Arrival. After just two weeks of rehearsals, Alston incorporated the students into a cast made up of dancers from his own company. The documentary also touches on how the British choreographer grappled with handling this dark side of American history, and what it was like for two of the GSA students to confront the events of 1619, which took place so close to where they grew up.

The second half of the film is about the creation of Claudia Schreier's Passage for DTH. Artistic director Virginia Johnson stresses what she saw as the importance of bringing in collaborators who are women of color for this project, and the documentary features interviews with Schreier and composer Jessie Montgomery. After seeing them work separately at their crafts, it's exciting to see both artists come together with the dancers in the studio. This creative process went on just after DTH co-founder Arthur Mitchell passed away in September of 2018, and the documentary ends with Johnson, Schreier and company dancer Christopher Charles McDaniel talking about the importance of carrying on Mitchell's legacy.

Click here to watch Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants on PBS.org for free.

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