Dance Theatre of Harlem

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Dance Theater of Harlem

The Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH), a classical dance company, was founded on August 15, 1969, by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook as the world's first permanent, professional, academy-rooted, predominantly black ballet troupe. Mitchell created DTH to address a threefold mission of social, educational, and artistic opportunity for the people of Harlem, and to prove that "there are black dancers with the physique, temperament and stamina, and everything else it takes to produce what we call the 'born' ballet dancer." During its official 1971 debut, DTH triumphantly debunked opinions that black people could not dance ballet. By 1993 DTH had become a world-renowned company with forty-nine dancers, seventy-five ballets in its repertory, an associated school, and an international touring schedule.

DTH's extensive repertory has included technically demanding neoclassic ballets (George Balanchine's 1946 The Four Temperaments ); programmatic works (Arthur Mitchell's 1968 Rhythmetron and Alvin Ailey's 1970 The River to music by Duke Ellington); and pieces that explore the African-American experience (Louis Johnson's 1972 Forces of Rhythm and Geoffrey Holder's 1974 Dougla created in collaboration with DTH conductor-composer Tania Leon). DTH also excels in its own versions of classic ballets, including a sumptuous, Geoffrey Holderdesigned production of Stravinsky's Firebird (1982) choreographed by John Taras, and a stunning Creole-inspired staging of Giselle (1984) created by Arthur Mitchell, designer Carl Mitchell, and artistic associate Frederic Franklin. This highly acclaimed Giselle set the Romantic-era story in the society of free black plantation owners in preCivil War Louisiana. DTH is perhaps best known for its revivals of dramatic ballets, including Agnes de Mille's 1948 Fall River Legend and Valerie Bettis's 1952 A Streetcar Named Desire, both of which have starred principal ballerina Virginia Johnson. Other important classical dance artists associated with DTH include Lydia Arbaca, Karen Brown, Stephanie Dabney, Robert Garland, Lorraine Graves, Christina Johnson, Ronald Perry, Walter Raines, Judith Rotardier, Paul Russell, Eddie J. Shellman, Lowell Smith, Mel Tomlinson, and Donald Williams.

In 1972 the DTH school moved to its permanent home at 466 West 152nd Street, where training in dance, choreography, and music supplemented outreach programs bringing dance to senior citizens and children of the Harlem community with special needs. The international celebrity achieved by DTH began with a Caribbean performance tour in 1970, an engagement at the Spoleto Festival in 1971, and an auspicious 1974 London debut at Sadler's Wells Theatre. In 1988 DTH embarked on a five-week tour of the USSR, playing sold-out performances in Moscow, Tbilisi, and Leningrad, where the company received a standing ovation at the famed Kirov Theatre. In 1992 DTH successfully performed in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 1990, faced with a $1.7 million deficit, DTH was forced to cancel its New York season and lay off dancers, technicians, and administrative staff for a six-month period. Mitchell and the board of directors responded with increased efforts to enlarge corporate support and strengthen their African-American audience base. In 1994 DTH completed a $6 million expansion and renovation project, which doubled classroom and administrative space and confirmed the DTH commitment to provide access to the disciplined training necessary for a career in classical ballet. However, financial problems continued. In February 1997 the company was paralyzed by a three-week strike. In 2004 the company faced an overwhelming deficit that forced extended layoffs for much of its staff.

See also Ailey, Alvin; Ballet; Ellington, Edward Kennedy "Duke"


Kendall, Elizabeth. "'Home' to Russia: Dance Theatre of Harlem on Tour in the Soviet Union." Ballet Review 16, no. 4 (winter 1989): 349.

Maynard, Olga. "Dance Theatre of Harlem: Arthur Mitchell's 'Dark and Brilliant Splendor.'" Dance Magazine (May 1975): 5264.

thomas f. defrantz (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first black classical ballet company. The group was founded in Harlem, New York City, by Arthur Mitchell, then of the New York City Ballet, the first African-American principal dancer of a classical company of international standing, and the ballet master Karel Shook (1920–85). The company began as a school for 30 students in the summer of 1968. Classes were conducted with the doors open so that passersby could watch the students at the barre; at the end of the summer the school had 400 students. Mitchell began taking his students on lecture-demonstration tours in 1969, and by 1970 had a professional company of 20. The group debuted in 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and performed later that year at the Spoleto festival in Italy. After two European tours and three national tours, the company had its successful first full season in New York City in 1974. With a style based upon 20th-century classicism, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is noted for graceful and vigorous performances of works by such choreographers as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Mitchell. In 1981 it became the first African-American ballet company to have a season at Covent Garden, London, and in 1982 the company had its first season at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City. Its dancers have included Stephanie Baxter, Virginia Johnson, Eddie Shellman, Mel Tomlinson, Donald Williams, and Alicia Graf. Economic difficulties resulted in a strike (1997), subsequent financial belt-tightening, and temporary shutdowns of the school (2004) and company (2004–12). Virginia Johnson succeed Mitchell as artistic director in 2009. The company also sponsors an educational and community outreach program, Dancing through Barriers.