Founded during the height of the civil rights movement, Dance Theatre of Harlem has not only transformed the world of dance, but redefined what it means to be a ballet dancer.
Dance Theatre of Harlem is a revolutionary and renowned dance institute with an 18-member company of racially diverse artists who travel across the globe performing a repertoire of classic and neoclassic ballet, as well as contemporary works.
They'll perform at ASU Gammage on Nov. 18. Tickets are on sale now at asugammage.com/dancetheatreofharlem.
The company was created by Arthur Mitchell, a man born and raised in Harlem, who made history when he became the first black principal dancer for the New York City Ballet in 1955.
With a mission of empowerment through the arts, Mitchell wanted to create a safe haven for dancers of color and a place of empowerment for the youth of Harlem, providing them the opportunity and resources to excel in the world of ballet.
“Mitchell wanted to empower the young people of Harlem who had been written off by society. He believed that by studying a classical art form such as ballet, Harlem youth would gain important life skills such as self-discipline, focus and perseverance,” said Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s artist director. “So Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem as a school, and very shortly after created the dance company, which provided role models for the school’s students. Dance Theatre of Harlem and its company has allowed and encouraged dancers to reach their full potential.”
Johnson herself has been a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem since the beginning when she became both a founding member and principal dancer for the company. Johnson is considered one of the greatest ballerinas of her generation, having received numerous accolades from lifetime achievement awards to an honorary doctorate from Julliard. She also is the founder of Pointe, an international magazine targeted toward ballet dancers and students.
“I was exposed to ballet at the age of three and immediately fell in love. I fell in love with the order, and I fell in love with the possibility of making myself something more than I was by studying something that was so incredibly difficult. I loved the challenge,” Johnson said. “I studied ballet for a long time as a young person, and when I graduated, the director of my school pulled me into her office and basically told me that I was talented and trained hard, but no one was ever going to hire me as a ballet dancer because of the color of my skin. But when I got to New York, Arthur Mitchell gave me a chance.”
For the past 53 years, Dance Theatre of Harlem has helped dancers achieve their dreams and continues to leave a lasting impact on the world of American ballet.
“When Mitchell became the first black principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, he was viewed as an exception. But Mitchell wanted to show that when given the opportunity, anyone could excel in the art form of ballet. And that is exactly what Dance Theatre of Harlem has done for the past 53 years,” Johnson said.
Not only has Dance Theatre of Harlem changed the lives and careers of dancers of color across the country, but it has also transformed people’s preconceived ideas of what a ballerina should be and look like.
“The most rewarding experience of being a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem is changing people’s minds. When I was a performer with a company, we would go to a new city and people thought they were coming to see the Harlem Globetrotters because they couldn't imagine black people doing ballet. But by the end of the show, everyone was standing on their feet and cheering,” Johnson said.
When Dance Theatre of Harlem performs on the ASU Gammage stage this November, the audience should expect to find themselves on the edge of their seats.
“We will of course perform classical and neoclassical ballet, but we will also perform contemporary works. Works that are reflective of American culture at large,” Johnson said. “America is a country made up of many different cultures, and Dance Theatre of Harlem wants to celebrate these cultures and bring them together. This show will really represent what America is.”
Johnson also hopes that dancers of color who come to see the show are inspired to continue working towards and achieving their goals. When asked to give any words of advice to these dancers, Johnson said: "Keep the focus and know that you have the power to change the world.”
Today, Dance Theatre of Harlem continues to train young people in classical ballet through its world-class school and provide the community with arts education, outreach programs and positive role models for all.
“Ballet belongs to everyone, and ballet can speak to everyone,” Johnson said.
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