Dance Theatre of Harlem: BDC celebrates Black History Month

Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry. 

Next up is Dance Theatre of Harlem.

What is Dance Theatre of Harlem?

Dance Theatre of Harlem is renowned for being the first major ballet company to prioritize Black dancers. 

A little history…

DTH was founded in 1969 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was established by Arthur Mitchell (a protégé of George Balanchine and the first Black dancer with New York City Ballet) and his former ballet master, Karel Shook, as a classical ballet school for young dancers in Harlem. A company was formed with the top dancers and DTH began performing as a way to match money donated to fund the school. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins bestowed the rights to several of their ballets and before long, DTH was touring internationally, integrating stages, and presenting both classical ballets and contemporary works celebrating African American culture. 

Breaking barriers in ballet

Since day one, DTH has been a multi-ethnic dance company. “[The vision],” says Virginia Johnson, founding member and later Artistic Director of DTH, “was to make people aware of the fact that this beautiful art form actually belongs to and can be done by anyone. Arthur Mitchell created this space for a lot of people who had been told, ‘You can’t do this,’ to give them a chance to do what they dreamed of doing.” Both the school and the company preached inclusivity and innovation. Dancers of all backgrounds and body types were welcomed at DTH. 

Dancing into the future

Now in their sixth decade, DTH continues to educate, perform, and inspire. Despite financial constraints and the recent pandemic, DTH has found a way to keep going. Check out their 2020 virtual performance, “Dancing Through Harlem.” Additionally, DTH’s outreach program, “Dancing Through Barriers,” travels across the country to offer classes in ballet, choreography, and musicology to anyone who wants to study dance—from children to seniors. For more about DTH, visit their website.

Brown Ballerinas: Inside the Dance Theatre of Harlem

Virginia Johnson in Creole Giselle

Balanchine, Broadway and Beyond

On the evening of October 8th Dancers over 40, a non-profit organization that honors the lives and legacies of the dance community, hosted “Balanchine, Broadway and Beyond” at St. Luke’s Theatre on 46th Street.  The underground theater was filled with dance legends in their own rites, including Donna McKechnie and Arthur Mitchell.  The evening was comprised of rare film clips of Balanchine and his work as well as panel discussions with some of Balanchine’s featured dancers:

  • Merrill Ashley
  • Vida Brown
  • John Clifford
  • Gene Gavin
  • Allegra Kent
  • Frank Ohman
  • Barbara Milberg-Fisher
  • Bettijane Sills
  • Carol Summer
  • Barbara Walczak
  • Patricia Wilde
  • Marge Champion

The panel of esteemed dancers all referred to Balanchine as “Mr. B.” and talked of many occasions where he would come up with choreography on the spot – a true mark of his artistic brilliance.  In the composition process, choreography changed quite a bit.  Balanchine would make up the movement, but it was your (the dancer’s job) to remember all of it!

Everyone on the panel spoke so highly of Mr. B. while reminiscing their dance performances of yore.  When constructing a new solo piece, Balanchine would highlight a dancer’s technical strengths and affinities but add some challenging steps as well.  Merrill Ashley described how this “was meant to ‘show us off’ while giving us all a little prod to work harder.”

George Balanchine was a Russian-born choreographer who is regarded as the most influential contemporary ballet choreographers of all time.  Balanchine’s father was a Georgian composer, and young Balanchine studied music and composition during his early years.  This passion for music clearly translated to his ballet career for which he brilliantly united the dance and the music as “one.”

[Balanchine] emphasized balance, control, precision, and ease of movement. He rejected the traditional sweet style of romantic ballet, as well as the more acrobatic style of theatrical ballet, in favor of a neoclassic style stripped to its essentials – motion, movement, and music. His dancers became precision instruments of the choreographer, whose ideas and designs came from the music itself. – Gale Encyclopedia

Balanchine choreographed nearly 400 ballets, 20 Broadway shows, and 5 Hollywood films.   Balanchine notably founded the New York City Ballet in 1948.

Some of Balanchine’s most memorable works include:

“We must first realize that dancing is an absolutely independent art, not merely a secondary accompanying one. I believe that it is one of the great arts. . . . The important thing in ballet is the movement itself. A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle . . . is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye. It’s the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician.” – George Balanchine