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.
Pam Tanowitz is on a roll. Though the choreographer long ago made a name for herself in the modern dance world, ballet companies are finally starting to take notice of her work. Earlier this month, Tanowitz created her first of two ballets for New York City Ballet; in June she'll debut her first outdoor site-specific piece, conceived of with NYCB principal Sara Mearns; and tonight marks the premiere of Gustave Le Grey No. 1 at the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival, featuring dancers from Miami City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem.
We caught up with Tanowitz just before she jetted off to London for a tour with her own company, Pam Tanowitz Dance, to hear about her relationship to ballet technique, her upcoming premiere and her advice for young dancers.
The Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival (May 28–June 2) is celebrating women leadership and creativity this year, kicking off with three evenings of performances by Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Miami City Ballet joins them in a shared program on May 31, followed by their own performances.) Led by artistic director Virginia Johnson and executive director Anna Glass, DTH is a natural programming choice; so is bringing choreographer Claudia Schreier's new ballet for the company, Passage, which has an all-female creative team. The work premiered earlier this month in Norfolk, Virginia, and was originally commissioned by the 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution and the Virginia Arts Festival, which honored the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to English North America. The overarching theme of the ballet celebrates the fortitude of the human spirit and the enduring will to prevail, which is apropos given that this is the 50th anniversary of a company that has seen much tribulation and triumph.
Crystal Serrano never envisioned someday joining Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company founded by Arthur Mitchell to show the beauty and uplift of classical ballet on dancers of all colors. Her career began with Sacramento Ballet, which she joined after one year in Pacific Northwest Ballet School's Professional Division, but her time there was cut short by illness. After recovering, she felt so worn down that she left dancing behind and enrolled at the University of Washington. But she soon realized she'd made a mistake. "I thought, what am I doing?" she recalls. "I had to dance." With a fresh perspective and renewed determination, Serrano took an apprenticeship with Oregon Ballet Theatre before landing a job with Ballet San Antonio, where she soon rose to soloist.
Today, April 4, marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. It's a date heavy with meaning and symbolism for Kevin Thomas and Marcellus Harper, the founding directors of Memphis-based Collage Dance Collective. King's death not only marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, but it inspired Arthur Mitchell to found Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company and school devoted to providing opportunities to dancers of color. Harper and Thomas, a former DTH principal, have helped carry on Mitchell's mission through Collage Dance Collective, a company that showcases black dancers and choreographers.
"Keep the rhythm going," calls Robert Garland, Dance Theatre of Harlem's resident choreographer, from the front of the studio. Five company women pulse through a series of syncopated pony steps, upright arabesque sissonnes and funky, Motown-inspired dance moves. It's an open rehearsal in early September, and the company is giving curious audience members a sneak peek at Garland's upcoming world premiere—one of several new works this season as DTH celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, DTH was groundbreaking in its makeup of mostly African-American dancers, and its insistence that they could excel in ballet. "We were a bunch of dancers who had been told no, we couldn't do this, and Mr. Mitchell was giving us a chance to show that we could," says artistic director Virginia Johnson, a founding company member and former principal. "He was a very demanding taskmaster—he knew there was something very important to prove and that it was on us to prove it."
Not only is Daphne Lee a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem and a graduate student, but she's also a pageant queen who just finished her reign as Miss Black USA. Lee became involved in pageants to win scholarship money for school and promote cancer awareness. She's currently getting her MFA in dance at Hollins University through a low-residency program. "I'm always carrying a book," says Lee. She's also sure to keep her student ID with her. It works internationally, which can be helpful in getting student discounts on tour. Balancing her busy schedule isn't easy. That's why the most important item in Lee's dance bag is her planner. "I keep everything in here," she says.
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Twenty-one ballet organizations have come together to support the advancement of racial equity in professional ballet. They're all part of The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet, a new effort being led by Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
Fall for Dance FestivalWonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.
There's a change in the air these past few weeks—is it fall? Not quite yet. More importantly, it's PUMPKIN SPICE SEASON. And now, the quintessentially autumnal flavor isn't just for lattes anymore. Dancewear companies are picking up on the trend, offering more and more pieces in rich, sweet orange shades. Behold, eight of our favorite pumpkin spice-inspired pieces for your dancing enjoyment.
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.
Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives
As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.