Dance Theater of Harlem

views updated May 29 2018

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