The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded by Arthur Mitchell, a legend in the dance world. Known as an accomplished artistic director, astute educator, talented choreographer, and extraordinary dancer, Mitchell was born in New York City in 1934. He began his dance training at New York City's High School of the Performing Arts, where he was the first male student to win the coveted Annual Dance Award. Mitchell continued his classical training when he received a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet. In 1955, he was the first African-American male to become a permanent member of a major ballet company when he joined the New York City Ballet. Upon learning of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Mitchell was inspired to provide children - especially those living in Harlem- with the opportunity to study dance. During the summer of 1968, he began teaching classes in a remodeled garage. In 1969, with financial assistance from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel, the Ford Foundation and his own savings, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with his mentor and ballet instructor Karel Shook.
"In terms of the origins, the Dance Theatre of Harlem was born out of the crucible of the civil rights movement and Arthur Mitchell being inspired by the loss of Dr. King to return to Harlem and start the company to give opportunities to young people in that community," explained Keith Saunders, Ballet Master at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. "To make that history real for a new generation — not only of our dancers but for a new generation of audiences coming to see us — is very special and very poignantly tied to the Dr. King holiday."
The evening program for January 16 consists of three ballets from the company's repertoire. They will be performing Agon, a ground-breaking 1957 collaboration between two monumental 20th-century artists, choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky. Agon is universally regarded as a masterwork that redefined ballet in its time. In Agon, (ancient Greek for contest), 12 dancers perform a series of solos, duets, trios and quartets based on 17th-century French court dances. DTH Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Arthur Mitchell danced the central pas de deux in Agon at the ballet's premiere.
They will also be performing Past-Carry-Forward which features choreography by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis set to music by Willie "The Lion" Smith and SLIPPAGE (Thomas F. DeFrantz and Jamie Keesecker). This work takes a look at the legacy of the great migration of African Americans from the agrarian South to the industrial North in the early part of the twentieth-century. The migration forced many young African Americans into difficult situations, making choices to leave family at home in the South while they searched for the promise of a better life in the North. The Harlem Renaissance, the African American presence in a segregated military, working in the segregated service industry as Pullman railroad porters and as entertainers to white American audiences are also considered in the work.
The last ballet in the program is entitled Return, which is a rousing blend of the elegance of classical ballet and the gritty drive of soul music. This work features choreography by Robert Garland set to the music of Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Garland pushes the boundaries of ballet technique and form, incorporating and blending vernacular movement from the African American experience. From Pas de Bouree to the Cabbage Patch, Ballone to the bump, the ballet fulfills Dance Theatre of Harlem's idea of what it means to be "Classically American."
Last year's MLK Celebration signified the return of the Dance Theatre of Harlem to NJPAC for the first time in a decade. In addition to the evening program, the company will also be doing a mini performance designed for school children in the early afternoon. It's something they do in almost every city they visit.
"In our touring we often offer lecture demonstration performances and other educational activities in which we'll either bring the kids into the theatre or go into their schools to deliver the educational service whether it's an athletic workshop, a movement class, or whatever the case may be," explained Saunders. "That's been part of the Dance Theatre of Harlem's mission since the inception. To make this art form accessible and available to anyone who wants to see it, particularly those who may not have had the opportunity previously. We take that mission very seriously — to get people into the theatre, to see and experience what we do, and hopefully get them hooked for life. The idea is to provide the opportunity for the young people to perhaps see a different possibility than they might have imagined before."