Performing at the Aronoff Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday, Dance Theatre of Harlem is a company committed to using dancers of diverse backgrounds. It also aims to educate audiences about dance through performances in Harlem and around the country.
When it was founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theatre of Harlem was the first African-American classical ballet company in the country. Its dancers needed that opportunity. Today, when the African-American Misty Copeland can be the female principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, that may seem like ancient history. But while times are changing, problems persist.
“I was told that I would have a career, but that I would never be a ballerina because there weren’t any black ballerinas out there,” says Victoria Johnson, Dance Theatre’s artistic director. “People still think that, unfortunately.”
A dancer from childhood and the recipient of a scholarship to study at the Washington School of Ballet, Johnson eventually became a founding member of Dance Theatre. She danced with the company for 28 years. In 2010, Mitchell asked her to take over its artistic leadership and to have the company resume touring, which had stopped in 2004. She was able to reinstitute touring in 2012.
The company now features 16 dancers, who are, as Johnson says, “full of energy and vision.” The repertoire has shifted slightly by representing many different types of dance besides classical ballet.
“One of the things that’s important to me is we have a representation of many different cultures on stage,” Johnson says.
“We are the granddaddies of diversity,” adds Robert Garland, Dance Theatre’s resident choreographer and director of its school. “We’re taking you literally around the world (through programming), so people begin to understand how we’re all part of the same big picture.”
Four different works that showcase diversity will be performed in Cincinnati. “Valse-Fantaisie” opens the program and is a lesser-known piece by George Balanchine, the famed founder of the New York City Ballet. It is followed by “This Bitter Earth,” a pas de deux from choreographer Christopher Wheeldon set to the Dinah Washington song of the same name.
The middle work on the program is “Change,” from renowned modern dance choreographer Dianne McIntyre. Created for three women and set to Negro spirituals, Garland calls this a representation of the #metoo movement before the movement happened. “It’s about the power and community of the feminine idea,” he says.
Closing the program is “Harlem on My Mind,” choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie and set to Harlem Jazz tunes.
Such choices are what the Dance Theatre’s audience looks for, Johnson says. “The word ‘Harlem’ in our name brings people to the theater with a certain expectation (of) a company unlike any other — an expectation that they’re going to see something that’s exceptional but also has a very particular flavor to it, a very particular mission,” she says.
Johnson says one of her favorite aspects of touring is the opportunity it provides presenting organizations, like the Cincinnati Arts Association here, to bring in diverse audiences to witness an ethnically diverse company. To that end, Dance Theatre will offer both private and public master classes during its time here.
This city has some close connections with Dance Theatre. Marcia Lynn Sells, a former dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and now associate dean and dean of students at Harvard University Law School, joined it in 1976 for four seasons. Current Cincinnati Ballet second company dancer Derek Brockington, an African-American, will join it for the 50th season.
“There’s not a lot of black dancers in big ballet companies,” Brockington says. “I’ve always looked for dancers of color whenever I’m looking at company websites (to see) if they will even consider me.’ ”
Johnson is happy to bring him on board, as well as others who represent the next generation of dancers performing on stages across the country.
“This generation is much more grounded and aware of who they are as individuals,” she says. “They understand their role in the world — to actually be role models.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem performs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at downtown’s Aronoff Center for the Arts. Tickets/more info: http://www.cincinnatiarts.org