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A Troupe That Stays on Its Feet : Performance: Defying skeptics, Dance Theatre of Harlem is still going strong. It is coming to Costa Mesa.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dance Theatre of Harlem was not the first ballet company made up largely of African American dancers, but it is the only such troupe that is still around and still going strong.

“Dance Theatre has a special place,” founder Arthur Mitchell said recently. “We’ve come from the back of the pack and we’re still here. I don’t think anyone expected it to survive.”

The company makes its first Orange County appearances Friday through Sunday at the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

“We’re very excited about it,” Mitchell said. “We just want everyone to come out and see us. It will be really nice for them to see something positive. No grandstanding. No barnstorming, no great exposes--just young people who have been given a chance to excel. And nowadays, that’s very, very good.”

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Mitchell was born in Harlem in 1934, studied at the School of American Ballet and joined New York City Ballet in 1956. He became one of the company’s most popular soloists, creating roles in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Agon,” as well as other Balanchine ballets.

He was stunned by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and decided he had to take his knowledge and artistry back to the community he had grown up in, so he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karen Shook the same year. The company made its public debut in 1971.

“We were always involved in education and outreach,” Mitchell said. “We built our audiences. We’d go into the inner cities and other communities. Everyone in Dance Theatre is trained to do education activities, to go out and share what they have. Everyone. They’ve got to give back to the community, not just perform.

“Most other companies do it because they have to. We do it because we want to. That interaction makes all the difference. I go and I say, ‘Look, I’ve come out of the same kind of community. And look what we’re doing.’ We are the only company in the world of its sort.

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“There’s a camaraderie, a sense of purpose and unity. It’s not a couple of stars with a group of dancers backing them up. That makes all the difference in terms of having a company. Plus our eclecticism is our strength.

“We have something for the purist, something for the neoclassicist, something that is more ethnic or modern oriented. All of that is the excitement of the American dancer. Now everybody is into synergy with these crossovers. Dance Theatre has been a forerunner of that.

“When you have a very tenacious, maniacal leader, that makes it easier,” he added. “I do have a maniacal drive about the arts. I know personally that if I did not have the arts in my life, I wouldn’t be Arthur Mitchell today. I don’t even know if I’d be alive today. I’m crazy, maniacal about putting the arts into young people.”

Mitchell knows that he’s competing with television and short attention spans.

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“But I talk to those young people and tell them, ‘You’ve got to go to the theater.’ Once you get them in and they experience the magic, I’ve got them for life.

“Look, everybody’s got a cellular telephone, a boombox, a radio. But why are all the young people so unhappy? Because nobody, nothing is feeding the soul. That’s what the arts do.

“When we think of the [former] U.S.S.R., why did all those artists defect here? They wanted the range, the freedom of style, the ability to expand as artists they can get only here. Stylistically, there’s a verve, exploration. Normally, in traditional companies, they want to do exactly what was done before, not addressing our society as it is today.

“It’s one thing [for a ballet] to talk about princes and princesses. We don’t have princes here. We have to make it relevant to the people coming to the theater now. So we’re taking the classics and making them our own.”

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An example is “The Firebird,” which in the DTH production is “transposed to a mythical island in the Caribbean” to give it a “look of now that everyone can related to. It just works.”

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Of the six works on the two DTH programs, two (“A Song for Dead Warriors” and “Medea”) are by former San Francisco Ballet director Michael Smuin.

“I think Michael is one of the few theatrical choreographers around,” Mitchell said. “His works fit very well on Dance Theatre.”

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Even so, Mitchell decided he could improve on “Song,” inspired by the American Indian takeover of Alcatraz in 1969, by having the sheriff appear with his face painted white. Why?

“Because the sheriff is supposed to be a redneck sheriff. We put wigs on him, but that didn’t work. We thought, ‘How can we make it the person, rather than the color?’ It’s sort of like Kabuki theater. It becomes the essence of the person, rather than the color of the person.

“It’s fascinating to see a minority group dancing about a minority group. We went to speak about it before a Native American community. They said, ‘Yes, it’s such a wonderful story about our side of it.’

“It becomes timeless but also relevant in terms of our awareness of our diversity. Yes, we have economic problems. But we have to learn to live with each other and to respect each other’s cultures,” he said. “Out of that mixture comes something distinctly American.”

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* Dance Theatre of Harlem performs Robert Garland’s “The Joplin Dances,” Alonzo King’s “Signs and Wonders,” and Michael Smuin’s “A Song for Dead Warriors” on Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The company will also dance Geoffrey Holder’s “Dougla,” Smuin’s “Medea” and John Taras’ “Firebird” on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. A talk will be given an hour before each performance. $18 to $55. (714) 556-2787.


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