‘Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts’ recalls a groundbreaking history

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Nostalgia prevailed at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, where a group of dancer-alumni gathered on Saturday to remember the vivacious New York ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Charismatic pioneering black ballet star Arthur Mitchell launched the troupe in 1969 in response to Martin Luther King’s assassination. Post- 9/11 economic realities, however, undermined Mitchell’s labor of love. While DTH’s school still operates at 152nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, the performing ensemble has been “on hiatus” since 2004.

The colloquium accompanied “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts,” a colorful exhibit first staged at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and now on view at African American Museum through July 4. (Museum executive director Charmaine Jefferson, a UCLA dance major and former DTH executive director, and Woody Schofield, the museum’s deputy director and DTH company manager in the 1990s, brought it to Los Angeles.)

In forming the troupe, Mitchell and co-founder Karel Shook strongly asserted that African Americans have their own vital contribution to make to classical ballet, juxtaposing 1960s black pride with a 19th century European art form generated wonderful results.

Eminent dance artists associated with DTH. The greatest was George Balanchine, master choreographer for New York City Ballet, who created his brilliant “Agon” on Mitchell and Diana Adams in 1957. This Stravinsky ballet graced DTH’s repertory along with Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” “Four Temperaments” and “Serenade,” making the Harlem troupe a credible City Ballet uptown outpost.

One photo captures the DTH premiere of Bronislava Nijinska’s “Les Biches,” a connoisseur’s ballet that Nijinsky’s sister made for Ballets Russes in 1924. Beaming dancers cluster round the choreographer’s daughter, Irina, and the elderly Vera Nemtchinova, who danced “The Blue Girl” in the original version. Alexandra Danilova, mother hen to New York City Ballet, is seen coaching the Harlemites. Frederic Franklin, still alive today, staged a “Creole Giselle,” set to the familiar Adolphe Adam score. Nearly forgotten choreographer Valerie Bettis contributed “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Also on the roster: Geoffrey Holder, Jose Limón, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Louis Johnson, Talley Beatty and yes, Alvin Ailey.

On Saturday eight alumni recounted their life journeys before and after Dance Theatre of Harlem.

In 1975, Denver native Karlya Shelton arrived in New York hoping to become a professional dancer. The gifted student received scholarship offers from the School of American Ballet and Joffrey Ballet School. Investigating a third option, Dance Theatre of Harlem, she auditioned at Broadway’s Uris Theater where the troupe was performing.

“I took a class with them,” remembered Shelton, now a photographer. “I saw two ballerinas in [dark] skin-toned tights. They were working on their shoes [dyeing pointe shoes to match their skin tone]. When I saw those two engaging ladies, that was it for me.”

A glass case among the exhibit’s posters, costumes, photos, videos and memorabilia displays tights, toe shoes and boxes of RIT dye calibrated to every skin shade. Mitchell is quoted, “Initially, DTH dancers wore pink tights and toe shoes. It always disturbed me but we were following 300 years of tradition. Many people didn’t want to break tradition but sometimes things have to change.”

Radiating parental presence on Saturday’s panel was DTH’s superlative premier danseur Donald Williams, whom one panelist called “the Michael Jordan of dance.” Williams still performs at 50 in the Venetian Las Vegas’ “Phantom.”

Williams recalled his first glimpse of DTH in his native Chicago: “I was blown away by seeing people of color doing ballet. My buddy and I met Mr. Mitchell backstage. He said, ‘Take off your shoes and let me see you point your feet.’ Well, we were all dressed up! But we did it and he gave us a scholarship in New York.” Williams, then 13, was soon subway-commuting between Brooklyn and the Harlem dance studio.

When the Royal Ballet sought the company’s counsel on how to diversify its all-white ranks, Mitchell dispatched Judy Tyrus, Ronald Perry, Christina Johnson and Williams to London, where they performed in the Royal’s “Nutcracker.”

“For a kid from the Chicago ghetto to end up on stage with the most renowned company in the world was such an amazing experience,” recalled the handsome and elegant Williams, his voice choking with emotion.

Indeed, misty eyes dotted the house. A slender presence dressed in a smart gray pantsuit quietly circulated in the back of the room, listening. Longtime DTH prima ballerina Virginia Johnson, recently appointed as its new artistic director, collaborates closely with Mitchell (now director emeritus) and New York funders to reconstitute the company. In an era in which contemporary dance troupes deliver generic cross-border repertory, the American dance community sorely misses the vivid personality and focused mission of Dance Theatre of Harlem.