"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."