Retooled Dance Theatre of Harlem Makes a Comeback

Temporarily shuttered, renowned dance company returns to national stage with a 40TH anniversary tour that includes campus stops.

On Oct. 16, 2004, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the only major ballet company in the world composed primarily of Black dancers, shut its doors. It was a move that stunned the New York arts community.

“Everything came to a screeching halt,” says then-director of the DTH school, Laveen Naidu. Internal financial problems coupled with deep cuts in charitable donations following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused the company to acquire a $2.4 million deficit. The show could not go on.

Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in response to the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the company had become known as the place for ballet dancers of color to practice their art. Mitchell made history in 1955 when he joined the New York City Ballet, becoming the first Black male to be a permanent member of a leading ballet company.

Convinced that teaching ballet to the children of Harlem would fulfill his dream of “using the arts to ignite the mind” — the company’s motto — Mitchell started with a few classes held in a garage. Mitchell made a practice of leaving the door open, which not only enticed children in the neighborhood to check out the school, but also spread the word to professional dancers that Mitchell had started a new venture. Before long, the school grew to serve thousands of students, and a group of professional dancers, under Mitchell’s direction, became a company that performed to critical acclaim in New York and around the world.

When news broke that the dance company had ceased operation, hundreds of small donations came pouring in. “That told us the audience’s desire to see Dance Theatre of Harlem was strong,” says Naidu.

Within five months, $1.6 million had been raised, including $500,000 from an anonymous donor, who, it has since been reported, turned out to be New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. What followed was a total restructuring of the DTH organization. Naidu, a former DTH dancer, took over as executive director and the board grew from three to 11 members. “It has taken four years but we have paid down about two-thirds of our debt,” says Naidu.

DTH was able to reopen the school within two months, but its 40-member company was a casualty of the financial meltdown. Veteran dancer Keith Saunders remembers the dissolution of the company as a sad event, but notes that many of the dancers went on to accomplish great things in performing and teaching. Saunders is now director of the Dancing Through Barriers program, which gave rise to the DTH Ensemble, the reconstituted performing arm of the organization. Athough the ensemble has performed regularly at the DTH headquarters in upper Manhattan, it has never left its home base.

That is about to change. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the DTH organization will launch a tour, “Dancing for America,” on Jan. 16, 2009 that will take the ensemble to nine states in 12 weeks.

As Saunders observes, “It was always a matter of when, not if, the company would return, but there had to be a new paradigm.” Consisting of only 15 dancers, the ensemble is a leaner version of the previous DTH company, but Naidu sees it as the foundation on which to build a larger troupe in the future.

Despite the artistic success of DTH, performing opportunities for Black ballet dancers remain scarce. Even last year’s unprecedented promotion of Misty Copeland to soloist at American Ballet Theatre merely underscores how very few dancers of color find a home in major ballet companies. The situation has not improved substantially since the days when Arthur Mitchell was performing, which is one reason the survival of DTH is of paramount importance to the world of dance and the arts in general.

Statistics show that Blacks continue to be underrepresented in ballet and academic dance programs. Of several colleges and universities around the country that shared information about the racial makeup of their dance programs, only one reported having more than 20 percent Black students. That is Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., with 13 Black dance majors out of 40. These are not ballet majors, however, but students who take various styles of dance. Indiana University, which has separate modern dance and ballet departments, reported having two Black ballet majors out of 42, or 4.7 percent.

The DTH ensemble will tour several colleges and universities in the South and Midwest, where the troupe will offer a lecturedemonstration or master class in the afternoon and an interactive performance in the evening. Representatives of those institutions are excited about welcoming the troupe, and their enthusiasm should come as no surprise. After all, during its historic tour of South Africa in 1992, a reporter described the company itself as “a traveling university.”

Carl Baker, executive director of the Memorial Student Union and chair of the Lyceum Committee at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, is one such representative.

“At first I wasn’t enthusiastic about Dance Theatre of Harlem. I didn’t see its relevance to our students, but then I found out about its connection to Martin Luther King, and that’s when the light bulb went on,” says Baker. “Dr. King encouraged us to open our minds and broaden our thinking. He gave us the courage to get involved with activities that are nontraditional for Black people.”

“Ballet isn’t something I grew up with,” Baker continues, “but being in an academic setting allowed me to become more knowledgeable about the arts.” By bringing the DTH Ensemble to campus, Baker hopes to give N.C. A&T students similar opportunities. “The Dance Theatre of Harlem visit will be a win-win for everybody,” says Baker.

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