In the late 1960s, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Arthur Mitchell had a vision.
As the first African-American lead dancer for the world-renowned New York City Ballet, he founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem which, he hoped, would help shatter long-held myths that African-Americans were not suitable to perform classical ballet.
Under Mitchell’s guidance and direction, DTH fulfilled its founder’s mission. It became a groundbreaking dance troupe that traveled the world, filling prestigious performance halls and achieving world acclaim.
Among the many stops on the company’s tours was New Orleans on a number of occasions, most recently in 2001. This Saturday, the Dance Theatre of Harlem returns to the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts for one show only. Curtain time is 8 p.m.
The New Orleans Ballet Association is the presenting organization for the performance.
Since its last appearance here, Dance Theatre of Harlem has gone through some hard times and major changes. Despite its many accomplishments and worldwide fame, financial difficulties forced the company to suspend operations and take a five-year hiatus starting in 2004.
Finally, in 2009, Mitchell felt the time was finally right for a comeback. Mitchell, who is now DTH’s director emeritus, handpicked his longtime protégé, Virginia Johnson, to spearhead the company’s resurrection. Rounding up old and new members, DTH resumed touring four seasons ago and is once again filling houses and garnering rave reviews.
Johnson, who had danced with the company for almost 30 years and risen to the equivalent of its prima ballerina, was the publisher/editor of a dance magazine when approached to take the reins of the company. She described Mitchell, her longtime mentor, as “a man on a mission and a true visionary.”
“He wanted people to look at this art form of classical ballet in a new way,” she said. “He wanted to ensure that it’s given the opportunity and access to be performed by anyone — regardless of race, color or creed. He also wanted to provide an opportunity for all of us dancers who’ve been told that we didn’t belong in this art form.”
Johnson will give a free talk on the mezzanine level of the theater prior to the performance at 7:15 p.m.
Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform four individual dances in its Saturday night program. The opening number is a work choreographed by resident director, Robert Garland, titled “New Bach.” It is set to the music of the Bach Concerto in A-minor and described by Johnson as “an amalgamation of classical ballet and vernacular dance.”
She characterized the style as “neoclassical,” as developed by George Balanchine, combining elements of classical ballet and modern dance.
Other works on the program include Christopher Huggins’ “In the Mirror of Her Mind”; Ulysses Dove’s six-dancer work titled “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven” and subtitled “Ode to Love and Loss”; and “Vessels,” a piece in four movements created for the company by Darrell Grand Moultrie in 2014.
Johnson also praised the residency program between NOBA and DTH that has been ongoing since this past summer. Garland and other company members have been working with young dancers under NOBA sponsorship on a piece composed by Garland that will be presented the evening before the DTH performance.
“This has been a very meaningful experience,” Johnson said. “It broadens their horizons, sharpens their wits and their skills around performing and it gives them an opportunity to perform with the company.”
Longtime NOBA executive director Jenny Hamilton had words of praise for the company and its partnership with NOBA’s youth program. “We are very proud to bring the company in and very honored to work with them,” Hamilton said. “They’re just fabulous — all of them, from top to bottom — so it’s been a great pleasure.”