Entertainment

The Beauty of Black Ballet Returns

Dance Theatre of Harlem to Perform Oct. 9, 10 in Northwest D.C.

A unique relationship exists between Washington, D.C. and the Dance Theatre of Harlem [DTH] – one that has intensified since America’s premier Black classic ballet company marked its District debut in 1972.

Now the troupe of stellar dancers will return for a third year in a row for three performances on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 9 and 10 at Sidney Harman Hall [610 F Street] in Northwest.

Rumors of the company’s demise have been greatly over-exaggerated. In fact, now in its fourth year since undergoing a financial overhaul, DTH, under the watchful eye of current Artistic Director and D.C. native Virginia Johnson, continues to travel the globe, taking with it the “legacy of thrilling performances, artistic innovation and inspiration to audiences.”

“Sometimes parents are reluctant to invest in training when a child expresses an interest in learning ballet but they would if they had a son with a great pitching arm – the same should be done for little boys or girls who want to dance,” said Johnson who holds the distinction of being a former DTH dancer and a protégée of Arthur Mitchell – the first African-American principal dancer at New York City Ballet who founded the company in 1969, along with Karel Shook, serving collectively as co-directors.

Mitchell sought for a way to turn his despair at the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into hope by establishing first a school and later a company to bring new opportunities to the lives of Black youth in Harlem in the neighborhood in which he grew up. His belief: that the power of training in a classical art form could bring discipline and focus to a challenged community.

“DTH is 46 years old. I grew up and wanted to become a ballerina in a world that discouraged Blacks from studying ballet,” Johnson said. “But Arthur Mitchell made that possible when he created the company. Because of him I had a chance to make my dreams come true.”

“Today we have Black ballerinas like Misty Copeland who has a fantastic can-do attitude and has made her own dreams come true with plenty of hard work. We want to make it possible for other youth to come behind us. Yes, the training is both expensive and intense. But I made it with scholarships and there are even more opportunities for Black youth today.”

“The bottom line is we have to make more people see that investing in youth who have a passion for ballet is worth every dollar,” she said.

During their District appearance, DTH, acclaimed as “one of the most exciting undertakings” by The New York Times, will feature four works primarily by Black choreographers including the D.C. premiere of “Coming Together.” Choreographed by Nacho Duato with a score by American composer Frederic Rzewski, Duato’s inspiration for the piece came from a letter by Sam Melville, a political activist who was killed during the Attica prison riots in 1971.

The piece combines elements from traditional ballet, jazz and modern dance.

“It’s high energy, complex, fun and intense and it illustrates what it means to be alive,” Johnson said. “We first performed it last April so it’s still fairly new to us and we’re excited about doing it here in D.C.”

Johnson said she believes audiences will also enjoy “Contested Space” choreographed by Donald Byrd and created for DTH in 2012. An exploration of modern-day male/female relationships, the piece features 10 dancers in duets, trios and quartets that “push the boundaries of classical technique.”

“It’s a wonderful piece because it explores how space influences our relationships – how one person occupies our space and how we occupy theirs – and the agreement that must be made before we enter those spaces,” Johnson said.

The performances are co-presented by Washington Performing Arts and CityDance. For more information go to washingtonperformingarts.org or call 202-785-9727.

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D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Award-winning journalist and 21-year Black Press veteran, book editor, voice-over specialist and college instructor (Philosophy, Religion, Journalism). Before joining us, he led the Miami Times to recognition as NNPA Publication of the Year.

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