By David Coulson. February 25 2019. BOONE, NC. — When you have been breaking new ground for 50 years in the amazing ways that the Dance Theatre of Harlem has, it is an appropriate time to sit back and reflect on all you have accomplished, while also looking at how you can still keep yourself relevant.
COVER IMAGE: Courtesy of www.dancetheatreofharlem.org
That was the spirit of things last Tuesday evening at the Schaefer Center as this historic troupe unleashed its grace and power before an enthusiastic crowd that didn’t let the snowstorm going on outside dampen its spirited response.
Artistic director Virginia Johnson delighted the audience in the middle of the performance with a question and answer session, where she explained a purpose that goes beyond the stunning dance and choreography that was delighting all who watched.
Art isn’t the icing on the cake. Art is the cake itself.
“What can ballet be?” Johnson asked. “Ballet belongs to all of us.”
When noted dancer Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, it was at a time of social unrest and civil-rights progress. Mitchell’s desire was to expand ballet’s reach beyond its usual, mostly-white, upper-class audience.
“Art is an important part of a good life,” Johnson said. “Art isn’t the icing on the cake. Art is the cake itself.”
Mitchell — the first African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet — may have passed away on Sept. 19 last year at the age of 84, but his legacy lived on during this performance.
Johnson emphasized that the core values that Mitchell established are still at the core of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s philosophy today. They are:
- The establishment of an international touring company
- A world-renowned school of dance
- The concept of transforming life through art
If last week’s performance was any indication, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is still flourishing in all three, 50 years later.
…Soul Train crashing head on into the world of modern ballet.
A group of 17 principal dancers performed on Tuesday and thrilled the crowd with elements that ranged from classical technique to modern dance. The well-balanced program didn’t leave room for any boredom.
The evening started with the George Ballechine-choreographed Valse Fantaisie, which highlighted the artful Crystal Serrano and Dylan Santos and featured the classical composition of Mikhal Glinka.
After diving in first with a classic, The Bitter Earth stirred the emotions with its heart-felt Dinah Washington/Max Richter R&B ballad as dancers Stephanie Rae Williams and Chong Hoon Lee portrayed the story of two lovers, tenderly choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.
After the intermission and Johnson’s insightful Q&A, three dancers took center stage for Change, a thoughtful piece that championed diversity through its use of traditional African-American music from the Speelman College Glee Club and three lovely dancers of color, Amanda Smith, Yinet Fernandez and Daphne Lee.
50 years later, Mitchell’s dream continues to succeed, one audience at a time.
This poignant, moving piece — carefully constructed by Dianne McIntyre in 2016 — told the story of women who refashioned their neighborhood, their country and world through working together for common goals.
After another intermission, the night concluded in a big way with the entire ensemble returning for Return, a dance that took this art form into the modern era with its versatile movements and clever use of five different sections, featuring rhythms and blues classics.
It moved from section to section with a conglomeration of material from James Brown, the under-appreciated composer Alfred Ellis, Aretha Franklin and Carolyn Franklin, featuring the songs Mother Popcorn; Baby, Baby, Baby; I Got the Feeling; Call Me; and Superbad.
Different combinations of dancers, in perfect timing with the original music, gave the crowd the feel of Soul Train crashing head on into the world of modern ballet. It was a stunning finish to the evening and brought the appreciative audience to its feet at the end.
Johnson had stated earlier that Mitchell’s vision had been to “make his ability as a dancer count for change in the world.”
And 50 years later, Mitchell’s dream continues to succeed, one venue and one audience at a time.