"With the recent passing of Mr. Mitchell, I feel an even greater responsibility to share and grow the vision he began," says longtime company member Lindsey Croop. "Art is both transformative and transcendent, and because of DTH, there is a place for everyone." Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.ne."
"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."
Some may consider New York's Symphony Space a smaller theater, but big things were happening inside June 6–10. Just under 200 young dancers from all over the world were testing their luck at the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition in hopes of receiving scholarships, medals and company contracts. Their jury? An international panel of company and school directors, chaired by Andris Liepa, that included State Ballet of Georgia's Nina Ananiashvili, Boston Ballet School's Peter Stark, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson and Cincinnati Ballet' s Victoria Morgan.
It's International Women's Day! To celebrate, we combed our archives for career advice and wisdom from some of the women currently directing ballet companies. Let their words empower and inspire you, today and always.
Julie Kent working with students at ABT, photo by Rosalie O’Connor
"You don’t become a ballerina in one show or one season or one week. It’s a journey. You work towards the goal and the harder you work, the bar raises. And then over a period of time, you’re able to look back to see where you came from."
Lourdes Lopez teaching at the MCB School, photo by Daniel Azoulay
"You have to embrace new technology. It’s a no-brainer, but you have to figure out how to use it. People think of ballet as fragile. I completely disagree. I think it’s actually very powerful in terms of a transformational art form. Look how long it’s survived with all the issues and agendas—political, scientific, social and economic. I’m a believer that you can live-stream dance into a bar or restaurant or stadium or a parking lot. It’s not going to diminish the art form.
“The ideal is something you use as your compass, but it’s not actually possible to attain...Polish your strengths so they’re the center of attention, and know what can and can’t be done to change your weaknesses.”
"It’s not just about being too big. I don’t want rail-thin people, either. Trying to keep women like little girls is a power move, albeit sometimes not a conscious one. I don’t want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don’t think that’s very American."
“I look for commitment and openness. You can keep learning through your entire career, and there are always new ways of looking at things...The spirit of a dancer and their versatility is more important to me than whether they have perfect legs and feet.”
Virginia Johnson as Giselle and Lorraine Graves as Myrtha in Creole Giselle. Photo courtesy of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives.
If you’ve ever visited a Louisiana bayou at night, with the thick fog and eerie swamp waters, the idea of Wilis floating through the reeds might not surprise you. Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Creole Giselle transplants the Romantic era ballet from Europe to the antebellum South. In this clip from a 1987 film, Virginia Johnson—former principal dancer and current artistic director of DTH—dances the title role. In the Act I variation, she pairs crisp, solid footwork, full of sailing turns and effortless balances, with soft arms and careful transitions. In some interpretations, Giselle’s love for Albrecht and for dancing is exuberant bordering on foolish: You feel for the character in her heartbreak, but it’s hard to be surprised. Johnson’s joy is steadier, more grounded in reality. I think this makes us feel her subsequent tragedy even more keenly.
Creole Giselle, staged by dance luminary Frederic Franklin, won a Laurence Olivier Award in 1984. Johnson’s contributions to the dance world are equally notable. She was a founding member of DTH under artistic director Arthur Mitchell and—another reason why we love her—she served as Pointe’s founding editor-in-chief from 2000-2009. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
Virginia Johnson, former editor in chief of Pointe, was recently named artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Although the company has been on hiatus since 2004, the school and pre-professional ensemble are thriving. Johnson will work closely with Artistic Director Emeritus Arthur Mitchell to create a new strategic plan for the professional company.
Virginia Johnson, Pointe's founding editor in chief, will hold a free master class at Dance Theatre of Harlem studios on Sunday from 11 am to 1 pm!
Now artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Johnson invites advanced students to get a taste of DTH and learn about their Professional Training Program, a training intensive designed to give advanced students the career skills and high level dance competence required by the field.
If you're interested in attending, contact Christopher McDaniel at www.facebook.com/chrismcdaniel08