When the news broke last year that Dance Theatre of Harlem was returning to the stage after an eight-year hiatus, the dance world breathed a collective sigh of relief — all except the company’s new artistic director, Virginia Johnson, who is still holding her breath.
“We’re back and we’re new,” Johnson said. “We are the same eclectic and diverse company audiences have always enjoyed but we are now a lean, mean dancing machine.”
Johnson is upbeat about the future but understandably nervous about what she calls the “money-in-money-out” responsibilities of her job. In 2004, while Johnson was still a dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company announced a $2.3 million debt that forced it to shutter the performing company. It was a devastating blow after 35 years of touring the world and busting long-held myths about people of color and classical ballet.
DTH travels considerably lighter now, with 18 dancers, down from 44 in 2004, and a repertoire that doesn’t require two semi-trailers full of costumes and sets. The company will perform Thursday, March 6, at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall.
“It was important to bring the company back together,” Johnson explained. “DTH has a two-part mission: It’s about arts education and performance. We are about inspiring people and taking our message of diversity forward, and you really can’t do that without a touring company. It was very important to bring all those elements back to the organization.”
Since the beginning, DTH was about empowering young people through the arts and using the art form of classical ballet to give the people of Harlem a better chance at a bright future. During the eight years the company stopped touring, school and outreach programs continued founder Arthur Mitchell’s original mission of developing strong individuals who understand that focus and discipline can lead to success whether the student went on to dance professionally or not.
“Arthur Mitchell created DTH in 1969 and gave people like me, who had been told there is no place for you in classical ballet because of the color of your skin, a place to dance,” Johnson said. “But his objective was not just to create a black ballet company. His objective was to let people know that ballet doesn’t belong to just one community, it belongs to all. Excellence is a human endeavor and it doesn’t really have a skin color.”
Johnson commended Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute for “doing a great job of creating a diverse ballet company.” She predicts a shift over the next five years due to training opportunities for young dancers of color at American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre. “I think Adam will be a significant part of the change we see happening,” she added.
“Diversity is a priority to me,” Sklute said. “I feel a ballet company should reflect the world. This art form, no matter where its roots are from, is for everyone, and I want everyone to feel they have someone they can relate to when attending a performance. I also find it beautiful to have people of all races, nationalities, colors and sizes come together on the stage as a team. The alternative is boring to me.”
Thursday at Kingsbury Hall, DTH will perform ballets choreographed specifically for the new company as well as George Balanchine’s neoclassical 1957 masterwork, “Agon,” which Mitchell premiered in and later became a DTH favorite.
Also on the program is “Far But Close” by John Alleyne, described as an urban love story that includes spoken word; “When Love,” a romantic duet by Helen Pickett; and a crowd-pleaser titled “Return” by DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland to the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
“DTH always presented the highest standards of ballet, whether classics, Balanchine work or new creations,” Sklute said. ”Under Virginia Johnson, that remarkable standard remains and grows.”
Johnson danced for 28 years as DTH’s star ballerina before the 2004 break. Her focus then, she said, was to make sure her own performance was at the highest level.
“Now, as artistic director,” she mused, “I have the global view of the whole organization — what is happening with the dancers, what kind of work we are doing and how we are interacting with our community.”
When asked about the greatest challenge outside finances, Johnson carefully contemplated before answering: “It’s a changing time — we have a whole world of young artistic directors who are looking at the world differently. And to remain relevant in the 21st century, audiences are looking to connect with what is happening onstage. And connecting often comes from seeing themselves represented onstage.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem at Kingsbury Hall
When • Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29, $39, $49 and $59, with a $5 ticket for U. of U. students; available at the Kingsbury Hall box office, by phone at 801-581-7100 or online at www.kingtix.com.
View clips from ‘Return’ • www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYDFiPA_Ul8