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.
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.
Yesterday, pointe shoes made national news when "The Today Show" covered the shift that some brands have made towards creating shoes in shades of brown. The five-minute Sunday Spotlight segment, hosted by NBC's Willie Geist and Morgan Radford, includes interviews with Misty Copeland, Ingrid Silva, Virginia Johnson and Eliza Gaynor Minden.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
–The Washington Ballet's Julie Kent on the importance of patience
"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.
-Miami City Ballet's Lourdes Lopez on the future of ballet
“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."
–Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson on fighting perfectionism and gaining confidence
"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."
–Ballet Memphis' Dorothy Gunther Pugh on body type in the ballet world
“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."
–National Ballet of Canada's Karen Kain on what she looks for in dancers
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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.
Ballet has a lily-white reputation.
The great “ballet blanc" works glorify white swans, white shades, white wilis and white sylphs. Still, in 2014, balletgoers might expect some progress in racial diversity onstage, especially in the U.S., where populations of color are growing. But comb the rosters of most American companies and you'll find a striking sameness. While a few have established inclusive policies in training and hiring, they are the minority. There is a notable exception—Asian and Asian-American dancers have made real inroads. However, dancers of other ethnic backgrounds continue to face challenges, especially women.
Many factors contribute to ballet's lack of diversity: economic inequality—ballet training is notoriously expensive; a lack of role models for aspiring dancers to emulate; a failure on the part of schools and companies to provide support for young dancers of color on the uphill road to professional success. And another factor looms large in the discussion: Many believe a thread of racism still runs through the ballet world. “There are people who define ballet in a very specific and historic sense and think it should look like the Mariinsky in 1950," says American Ballet Theatre executive director Rachel Moore, who last year launched the company's Project Plié, an initiative to support the training of ballet students from underrepresented communities.
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