One of the most common answers given when asking little girls what they want to be when they grow up is “a ballerina.” There is something about the tutus, the tiaras and the dazzling lights on the stage that evokes a sense of wonder in little ones. For Virginia Johnson, artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, the appeal of ballet was present from an early age, but her hopes of making it into the elite in pointe shoes were kept closely in check. For Johnson as for many others who did not fit the blond hair, blue eye demographic of classical dance, the doors to their dreams seemed tightly shut.
Then, in 1969, Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theater of Harlem, providing the ballet world with some much- needed diversity.
“Arthur Mitchell made it possible to have a career,” reminisces Johnson in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post . “I was a young dancer who was told that I couldn’t be a ballet dancer. I’m now in the position to make that possible for a new generation of dancers.” Johnson joined DTH in 1974 as a soloist and had a prolific career with the troupe.
The company, which will visit Israel this month, is considered the first African- American classical ballet company in the world. Several dozen blocks north of Lincoln Center, the epicenter of American classical dance, Dance Theater of Harlem’s studios offer some well- needed perspective and opportunity to local dancers. The members of the company perform repertoires ranging from classical to neoclassical and contemporary dance.
For their visit to Israel, Johnson has put together a four- part program that includes tastes from their rich repertoire.
The evening will consist of Gloria and Return by choreographer Robert Garland; Contested Space by Donald Byrd; and Black Swan from the ballet Swan Lake by Marius Petipa. For Johnson, this program represents the kind of eclectic work the company is known for.
“One of the things that Dance Theater of Harlem has always done is try to show the range of what classical ballet could be. There’s something that’s classical, neoclassical, of the moment, and a lot of fun. Robert Garland specifically for DTH created Gloria after we reconstituted the company. We had taken a pause for eight years to regroup and reopened. We came together last August with this new company. Robert created this piece for our delight at being a company again,” she says.
“ Black Swan requires that refinement and line that are so special to ballet. If audiences don’t see a tutu, they don’t think it’s ballet,” she continues. “ Black Swan reassures people that it is ballet they are seeing.
Contested Space has a lot of energy. It’s been a fantastic challenge for the dancers. And then there is Return , in which Garland used music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown. The piece uses ballet but also uses popular dance movement, which is what DTH is about,” explains Johnson.
For Johnson, who took the reins as artistic director for DTH in 2009, bringing the company to Israel is one more step in the right direction. International exposure allows DTH to further Mitchell’s message of diversity in the ballet world, a notion that cannot be taken for granted.
“The thing that I see is that the world has gone a bit backwards in terms of dancers of color in ballet. DTH made a big statement about the possibility of it. When we were forced to close the company in 2004, ballet went off on its own thing again and didn’t realize that diversity is part of its future. We want to have people understand, open their hearts and have a greater feeling for ballet – to see the place of ballet in the present and to bring unimagined beauty to the world,” she says.
Dance Theater of Harlem will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center from May 30 through June 2. For more information, visit www.israel-opera.co.il