Multi-ethnic ballet company Dance Theatre of Harlem coming to Orange County

The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on April 18.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on April 18.
(File photo / Los Angeles Times)

Arthur Mitchell was on his way to an airport when he heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

Mitchell, the first African American principal dancer in a major ballet company, was headed out of the country to establish the National Ballet of Brazil — a task given to him by the United States government.

Mitchell changed course upon hearing the news.

With King’s death a renewed vigor arose in Mitchell, who now sought to affect his own community the way the great civil rights activist did.

His childhood neighborhood of Harlem, with derelict homes slowly disintegrating and aimless youths wandering into hopeless futures, seemed the perfect place to make an impact.

Mitchell started the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969.

“The idea was to train kids in classical ballet because you learn focus, discipline and perseverance,” said Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. “He wasn’t thinking about making ballet dancers — he just wanted to give these kids the tools to step out of the cycle of poverty.”

In 1970, Mitchell opened a Dance Theatre of Harlem company to perform on tour.

The Irvine Barclay Theatre will host the group on April 18.

“The Dance Theatre of Harlem is a wonderful company that represents diversity and the African American community,” said Jerry Mandel, president of the Irvine Barclay Theatre. “Orange County is not the most diverse place and it’s good to expose people to that.”

Arthur Mitchell (left), founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, in 2004. The Dance Theatre of Harlem will be performing on April 18 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
(File photo / Los Angeles Times )

Johnson said the theatre is considered the first racially-mixed ballet company.

When it started there were 400 students. It currently has about 500 students, but vacillates between a few hundred and 1,500, Johnson said. The Harlem dance theatre consists of three limbs: the school, arts education programs and the dance company.

At the time, ballet was considered an exclusive art form that only white people could practice.

“By creating the theater, Mitchell was saying that ballet belongs to everyone,” Johnson said.

There were few black ballet dancers in America at the time. Those with any talent usually went to Europe to pursue their careers because American ballet companies weren’t hiring black dancers.

Johnson faced the rampant racism firsthand.

She was 18 when she came to New York after having studied ballet most of her life. Yet, she was told that she couldn’t make it in the art form because of her skin color.

She joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 with 13 other dancers.

“We had all been told that we can’t do ballet,” Johnson said. “People used to call us the Harlem Globetrotters because they couldn’t envision us as ballet dancers.

“There were white and black people who didn’t want us to perform in this art form. Some black people thought, ‘Why are they doing the white man’s art form?’ while whites thought, ‘This is ours and you don’t belong here.’”

The Dance Theatre of Harlem gives a "Dancing Through Barriers" demonstration in 2000 for thousands of Los Angeles high school students.
(File photo / Los Angeles Times )

Decades later, the group has become part of the fabric of the American ballet industry, being honored at the White House in 2006 and hosting Nelson Mandela at their facility, among other honors.

However, the group’s history isn’t all success.

In 2004, the company had to disband its 44 dancers due to financial issues in an effort to preserve the school and arts education programs. It was understood at the time that they would be able to get back up and running within a year, but that didn’t happen.

Eventually, Johnson, who had left the company in 1997, was brought on by Mitchell to act as the new director. After repairing the group’s financial wounds, they started performing again in 2012 with a scaled-down group of 16 dancers.

Mitchell is still acting as an adviser to Johnson.

While the group is substantially smaller and they’ve had to make various financial concessions, their goal is still very much the same: promote ballet to the masses.

“Ballet is the most inspirational dance form,” Johnson said. “We dance on the tips of our toes. I like to say that it’s the closest you get to flying before you leave the Earth.”

If You Go

What: Dance Theatre of Harlem performance

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre at 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 p.m. April 18