Dance Theatre of Harlem
Artistic Director Virginia Johnson with Anthony Santos & Amanda Smith

Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Return Engagement In Philadelphia

Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) returns to the Annenberg Center this weekend, Jan 20-21, to kick off the second half of its nationwide tour. The program includes new ballets by Helen Pickett and Robert Garland, a Balanchine classic, and a premiere work by William Forsythe.

Virginia Johnson
photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

The Return Engagement

Virginia Johnson has been the company’s founding member and principal dancer for 28 years and is now finishing her 12-year tenure as the company’s Artistic Director. In a phone interview earlier this month, Ms. Johnson said, “I’m not retiring. I’m passing the torch” to DTH’s longtime resident choreographer Robert Garland.

After artistic and commercial success, by 2012, the Dance Theatre of Harlem was in a deep fiscal and administrative crisis, so much so they had to limit operations to maintain their school. The company roster of 35 dancers had been reduced to a small touring ensemble. Founding Artistic Director Mitchell implored Virginia Johnson to take over as Artistic Director. Johnson intimates that she had serious doubts about accepting the job.

“To be perfectly honest,” Johnson said with a laugh, “I came into this position dreading it. Thinking it would be impossible, too difficult, and unpleasant.” 

Ms. Johnson was not only the right person to take over. She brought the company back to touring in less than two years. She was now working with a smaller roster of dancers but a renewed mission of rebuilding the performance standard that Mitchell had established with a new generation of dancers, restoring a classic repertory, and commissioning new ballets in various styles for the next decade. 

After a four-decade-long chapter of dance history, Ms. Johnson recently announced her retirement from the visionary company, set for the close of the 2022-23 season on June 30, 2023. She said her decision to step down “was about Dance Theatre of Harlem and building the company to the next level. And Robert Garland is the right person to do that.” 

Johnson holds a firm belief in “the transformational power of art. Ballet is about what you imagine it is, but it has to be more than that, and that’s why I thought I needed to step back. It’s not only Robert’s talent and skill… I wanted a direct connection to Arthur Mitchell. I didn’t want his vision to disappear from the company. I’m proud of the growth and development of the dancers to this point, but they need to be stronger, more beautiful, and more powerful. Someone has to challenge the dancers to move forward.”

Robert Garland was born in Philadelphia, was a ‘Danco Dancer,’ and later a DTH principal dancer. He is a resident choreographer at DTH and has created works for ballet companies all over the world.

And as the company moves forward with Garland at the helm, they do so on a firm financial footing after receiving a $10 million gift from philanthropists Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett.

Dance Theatre Of Harlem
photo courtesy of Dance Theatre Of Harlem

Mitchell’s enduring legacy

Virginia Johnson will remain very much involved with Dance Theatre of Harlem as she continues work on The Dance Equity Project, an initiative she started in 2017 in partnership with the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) and Dance USA to confront racial inequities that are “still the status quo on stage in all major ballet companies. We’re about to enter round two of the program,” Johnson explained. “It’s an attempt to examine why it has been so difficult for companies to make these long overdue changes.”

Arthur Mitchell made history by breaking the racial barriers as the first black dancer at New York City Ballet hired by George Balanchine, who cast him in principal roles. He created Dance Theatre of Harlem in the 70s with a ballet school and company for aspiring Black and Brown dancers who would otherwise be excluded from the racially segregated ballet world.

And those changes can’t “just be onstage,” Johnson said, “but have to happen throughout the artistic and administrative staff of the organizations. When you come down to it, this is an American problem. Johnson said she sees encouraging signs that things could be changing for the better but adds, “It is still moving at a glacial pace.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem
photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

The Philly Performances

Choreographer William Forsythe’s Blake Works IV: The Barre Project, scored to music by British pop star James Blake. Johnson said, “And I’m delighted this is happening in Philadelphia. Bill started working with various choreographers on ‘The Barre you make it all happen, an essential part of a dancer’s life’. He started it as a film project during the pandemic, working remotely with companies around the country to create distinct versions of The Barre Project.”

In June of 2021, DTH had the opportunity to work with Jodi Gates at a Cincinnati Ballet performance bubble in New York. “Bill came in to teach a class. He loved what he saw and asked if he could create something with us, so this is the latest iteration of this series.” 

Robert Garland made ‘Higher Ground’ in March 2020. Its performance was delayed until January 2022 in Detroit. “Stevie Wonder was there and was thrilled. Robert had wanted to work with his music for a long time. We had to negotiate a lot with the Wonder people, but they have been thrilled with the work. It is the most Stevie Wonder music that has ever been licensed.” Johnson noted, “It’s music from 1970, a bookend to a time we’re living in now…this is a message ballet across generations. Robert’s amazing choreography combines classical with popular expression.”  

George Balanchine’s ballet ‘Allegro Brillante’ was a request by Penn Live Arts to commemorate Annenberg’s 50th Anniversary season. During DTH’s first tour, Virginia Johnson was one of the dancers onstage for those performances. For Johnson, it is a full circle moment and a well-deserved victory lap after four decades of work as a dancer and director in the company’s service.

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