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A leaner, 'forward-looking' Dance Theatre of Harlem is back in action

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NEW YORK — The sign on West 152nd Street, in Harlem's historic Sugar Hill neighborhood, reads "Dance Theatre of Harlem Way" — an appropriate indication of the permanence of the distinctive, dance organization that has struggled and evolved, but endured.

Its building has, from its start in 1969, hosted a busy school; students range from neighborhood 3-year-olds to young adults in the highly focused professional training program. But for eight long and soul-searching years, its acclaimed performing company, which had been its most visible aspect, did not exist.

Now, the troupe has finally re-emerged — "leaner and forward-looking," says artistic director Virginia Johnson — and on this autumn morning, the 18 dancers are filling the lobby with their luggage before departing for Kansas City, Mo.

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A busy 2013-14 touring schedule that includes a Southern California stop is confirmation that Dance Theatre of Harlem is indeed back in action.

Much has changed since financial pressures forced founder-artistic director Arthur Mitchell to furlough his 44 dancers in September 2004. Initial expectations were that the company would reassemble within a year. But it took much longer before everything was in place. By October of last year, a new Dance Theatre of Harlem with a re-imagined repertory was ready to take the stage.

The dancers visiting this week for residency activities and Friday's performance at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts have already re-introduced themselves to New York, and hit the road from Washington, D.C., to Tel Aviv, performing 14 different works, including several world premieres.

The coolly sophisticated, elegant Johnson, 63, took the artistic helm in 2010. One of the company's first and most celebrated ballerinas, she danced until 1997 but never imagined she would be tapped to fill the founder's enormous shoes. Sitting in Mitchell's former office, she said, "I never thought this job was something I could do, or would ever dream of doing. But Arthur Mitchell asked me to do it, so what choice did I have?"

Johnson had been editor-in-chief of Pointe, a monthly ballet magazine, for nine years when she got the call from Mitchell.

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"The idea of taking this place that gave me my future, gave me an amazing life, and making that possible for another generation of dancers to have that too — it's fantastic," she said. "That definitely overrides all the difficulties and impossibilities of the job: the potential it has to make a difference."

Working closely with Johnson is executive director Laveen Naidu, a former company member, choreographer and director of the DTH School. Also a graduate of Harvard Business School's executive leadership program, he became executive director shortly after the dancers were furloughed, so he's well versed in the complex ups and downs of those difficult years.

"The early thoughts were that we could return the company as we knew it," he said recently by phone from his office. "We found out very quickly that was not going to be possible. So as an institution, we had to do a lot of rethinking — really taking a good, solid, outward focus into the industry and saying: 'What's the right size of company that we need? What kind of artistic voice that would really continue to place DTH in this unique position and continue its legacy?'"

The 21st-century group will not be performing the "Creole Giselle" or the exotic "Firebird" that were once its calling cards.

"We're never going to be 44 dancers again — we have to be a touring company, and the market can't sustain that," Johnson said. "It's not at all sad for me. I'm excited about what DTH can do, the change that I can make. The opportunity to be lean and flexible, so that we can go to many places, is just as exciting to me as the idea of doing a big production in an opera house. I think we need to reach very broadly and go to as many places as we can."

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The DTH Ensemble, a youthful troupe of advanced students, had been touring with lecture-demonstrations since 2008, helping to sustain the company's name and profile as it ventured to "smaller cities that had never seen a ballet company before — much less a black ballet company," Johnson said. "So the Ensemble was the nucleus. But in order to get the company back, we had to actually create a stronger, more viable organization."

That became possible with careful planning and support, including from a consortium of foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, Bloomberg) that Naidu describes as "generous supporters all the way through during the rebuilding process." They helped fund Harlem Danceworks 2.0 — a program Johnson devised that brought in choreographers to work with professional dancers, developing duets that could potentially grow into new works for the repertory.

That has already borne fruit; John Alleyne's "Far But Close" had its premiere during DTH's April New York season, and the seeds for "Past-Carry-Forward," which is on the Cerritos program, were planted there too. This work by former company members Thaddeus Davis and Tanya Wideman-Davis explores the history and legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.

"We always want to address the African American heritage. And we have new works that are very specific about using the language of ballet to tell our story," Johnson said.

Longtime resident choreographer Robert Garland's 2012 "Gloria," also to be seen in Cerritos, is a calling-card for the new incarnation of the troupe — celebrating its arrival and its aspirations. "It references vernacular dance, social dance, classical and neo-classical ballet. So he brings into his work a full cultural understanding that really epitomizes DTH," Johnson said.

Once she began taking the company on tour, she said, "the thing that struck me was that people had really missed DTH and were eager to see it again. So that's been a great boost to us, that people are looking forward to seeing us. This is the new Dance Theatre of Harlem; we continue on our path, but we are different. It's another century, another era. There's a different kind of aesthetic."

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