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Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Rising Generation

DTH II / Joyce Theater, NYC / February 7, 9, and 11 matinee and evening, 2012

Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo: Martine Basagni

Dance Theatre of Harlem, with its mission of countering classical ballet’s unspoken policy of no-blacks-need-apply, was founded in 1969.  Its leaders were Arthur Mitchell (a charismatic African-American principal with the almost exclusively white New York City Ballet) and Karel Shook (a white former dancer and star teacher, known for welcoming black dancers to his classes).  From its legendary New York debut at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, the company was always popular with its audiences—not merely for the social justice it represented, but because its performers displayed an individuality and human warmth even in those early years when their technique needed further development.

In the 35 years of the company’s existence, much was achieved, while much remained to be accomplished.  Toward the end of that time, seemingly insolvable problems arose. The first of them concerned personnel, at the very top.  Mitchell, who had been a father figure to the dancers, had trouble coping with their inevitable self-determination as adults.  Severe financial troubles set in as well, with downturn of the national economy.  Finally the company had to “go on hiatus,“ as it was hopefully phrased.

Still, the doors of its excellent school remained open.  Then in 2009 Virginia Johnson—a founding dancer of the original troupe and, essentially, its prima ballerina—accepted the challenge of bringing the full company back to life.  Meanwhile a small touring group of the school’s senior students had emerged as the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, overseen by Keith Saunders, another former DTH star.  This group, 16 in number and now called DTH II, made its New York debut with four performances at the Joyce Theater, February 7, 9, and 11 matinee and evening.

Click here for a preview glimpse of Dance Theatre of Harlem II at the Joyce Theater.

The program’s curtain raiser, David Fernandez’ Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style) introduced eight instantly likeable dancers in Vernon Rose’s cheeky costumes.  But these handsome figures weren’t just strutting their street style; they were offering glimpses, often just in a single step, of how “cool” can be matched with pure classical beauty.

At the same time you got to see that the members of this troupe do not necessarily conform to the “ideal” anatomy—slender, long-limbed, exquisitely proportioned––currently dictated by companies who draw from huge talent pools.  It was also obvious that the technical level needs amping up.  On the other hand, the young dancers display a beautiful and cohesive company style—something absent from many of the loftiest groups we see.

Moritz Moszkowski composed the score; Melody Fader was its energetic pianist.

Despite the triteness of its genre—the struggle for self-realization—Christopher Huggins’ In the Mirror of Her Mind, was the stand-out dance on the program, largely because of its performers.  Aptly set to a Henryk Górecki score, the piece is a semi-abstract affair in which the protagonist (Ashley Murphy, striking in her crimson dress) is set on the path of realizing her true nature thanks to three quasi-mythic male mentors (DaVon Doane, Samuel Wilson, and Anthony Savoy, grave and dignified in Natasha Guruleva’s plainspoken costumes).

Huggins enriches his work with half-hidden implications.  For example, since the piece opens with the seeker recumbent, raised up by the men who then dance with her, Huggins implies that she may have been dreaming these wise men and thus may be her own guide.  Huggins also gives the dancers lots of opportunities to display their best skills.  Their ability to do partnered work calmly, almost flawlessly, and seemingly effortlessly is proved over and again.  After seeing too many clutch-and-slip lifts concocted by MacMillan and Neumeier—I was delighted by the woman’s making a complex pretzel shape of her body and hurtling herself at her advisor of the moment so that she attached to his chest and pelvis without the least bit of fuss.

Most gratifying is the fact that Murphy, a lovely lyrical dancer, seems moreover to be a vessel of drama, expressive by nature.  By the time the ballet concludes and she stretches her arms into an airy infinity, you want to lay the entire Antony Tudor repertory at her feet.

From its beginnings, DTH has had a close association with Balanchine’s ballets, which serve, in themselves, as powerful training devices.  The connection was marked on this program by the presentation of the master’s now rarely performed Glinka Pas de Trois, created more than half a century ago for three crackerjack technicians in the City Ballet:  André Eglevsky, Patricia Wilde, and Melissa Hayden.  DaVon Doane, Ashley Murphy, and Flavia Garcia didn’t come up to their standards (at the time of the ballet’s creation, none of the other City Ballet men could match Eglevsky) and the DTH II women were uncomfortably mismatched in height and embonpoint.  Nevertheless the production said wonderful things about the Harlem company’s signature style.  The dancers are beautifully placed (in other words, they exhibit a harmonious posture in motion); their musical phrasing is very good, though not yet imaginative; and—most important— nothing they do is forced.  Ever.

The second half of the program began with Gabrielle Lamb’s nicely crafted film showing how the dancers—and Johnson herself—found their identities at DTH.  The proceedings then moved on to (and got mired in) Donald Byrd’s Contested Space.  It is far too long, self-indulgently so, and Amon Tobin’s murderous static-infused score makes it all the more intolerable.  The general idea of both music and choreography is that the world is a threatening place (so yesterday, as themes go) with a climate that squelches even the hope of congenial relationships.  Interestingly, the dancers’ sanguine approach to both their work and their audience keeps them from being as harsh as the choreographer imagines them to be in this piece.  What Johnson, Saunders, et al. have drawn from these young artists and bred in them is, as we hear in Lamb’s film, the model of “a gifted artist who seems descended from the gods.”

What next?  Nothing less than the return of the main company—DTH I, so to speak—an outcome that has its parallels in The Sleeping Beauty.  As befits our straitened times, the company will begin modestly, with 18 dancers (when it shut down, the company held 44).  The roster will include members of DTH II as well as others culled from auditions that began in January.  It should be mentioned that DTH now conceives of itself as “multiracial, multicultural, multinational group” with, Johnson cautions, at least 50% of its members black.  The plan is to have the newly formed company begin rehearsals in August, tour the results beginning in September, then open in New York by April 2013.

As in the past, the repertory will encompass classical and neoclassical (think Balanchine) masterworks and contemporary pieces, including commissions.  As during Mitchell’s tenure, African-American choreographers will be given special attention.  Laveen Naidu, who now plays executive director of DTH to Johnson’s artistic director, heads the fund-raising side of operations.  His success is critical to the dream of releasing classical dance from its gated-community status.

© 2012 Tobi Tobias


  1. So sorry to have missed this.

    • But, assuming you’re in town, you don’t have to miss it. There are two performances tomorrow, SAT, FEB 11, at 2:00 and 8:00. Be there–for the pleasure of it and to bear witness to the idea that classical dance is not the exclusive province of people of pallor.

  2. Martha Ullman West says

    “People of pallor,” I love it. When I went home after registering for college (I was a Barnard commuter), outraged that I was asked on some form what color I was, my ever-witty father said I should have said I was faintly pink.

    I am so glad Virginia Johnson, one of the lovliest women of any color who ever bourreed across this planet, is reviving DTH, which years ago had a deep connection to Portland, Oregon where only ten percent of the population is black. Back in the day, Jefferson High School was a magnet school for the arts and had a wonderful dance program headed by Mary Folberg. (It still has a dance program, now headed by one of her students, once a member of Momix.) The school is in what passes for a ghetto in this predominantly faintly pink town and Mary, who also had a presenting organization that brought DTH to the city several times, hired Lowell Smith whom some of us remember with huge fondness to teach there for a year. Later, former DTH dancers Joseph Wyatt and the late Elena Carter re-located to Portland, danced in a couple of the predecessors of Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Elena, whose Sugar Plum and Aurora could (and did) make me weep, taught ballet here until her extremely premature death several years ago. She was my daughter’s first ballet teacher. DTH toured here quite frequently, enriching this city and setting a high standard for classical dance.

    I am at present writing about Ballet Society, one of the Kirstein-Balanchine enterprises and the immediate precursor of New York City Ballet. There were two dancers of color who danced with that company, Talley Beattey, who had recently resigned from the Dunham Company, and Betty Nichols, who was a student at the School of American Ballet. Beattey performed only once with Ballet Society as a guest artist in a novelty choreographed by Lew Christensen called “Blackface,” with Nichols. Todd Bolender cast her in his “Zodiac,” another novelty that didn’t last. He at that time was teaching in Dunham’s school and an advocate for African-Americans in ballet all of his life.

    I wish I could have seen this show; I’m afraid if I got on a plane in an hour, I still wouldn’t make it to tonight’s performance. Thanks Tobi, for this review.

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