“The first company was made up of people who had all been said no to,” said Virginia Johnson, a founding member and current artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). The company and its school, created by legendary New York City Ballet (NYCB) dancer Arthur Mitchell, arose at the height of the civil-rights movement in America, as a place where dancers of all colors could train, perform and excel in the world of classical ballet.
Dance Theatre of Harlem, which visits Seattle April 27-28 as part of its 50th anniversary tour, was born in a Harlem church basement. Mitchell, who became the first black principal dancer at NYCB in 1955, began teaching classes in 1968, wanting to make a difference in his community. The classically trained Johnson went on leave from New York University to join Mitchell’s fledgling company of 24 dancers — which soon left that basement and moved to a nearby garage.
“From the beginning it was a great success,” Johnson remembered. “People were excited and interested in it, or outraged and impatient to see it fail.”
This was a time, Johnson said, when classical companies simply were not hiring dancers of color. But that didn’t mean those dancers weren’t there. “African Americans had been studying ballet for decades,” she said, citing Mitchell, Louis Johnson, Janet Collins — “dancers who were making a name for themselves in this art form. That part doesn’t get talked about enough.” Johnson said she’s a “big fan” of Misty Copeland, who’s recently gained much attention as the first black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, but that she’s concerned that too many people think that classically trained black or brown dancers are a recent phenomenon. “It’s not new at all,” she said.
In the 28 years that Johnson danced with the company, she toured the world and performed dozens of ballets in the company’s repertoire, ranging from classics to contemporary, sometimes with a unique twist. (The company’s version of “Giselle,” for example, used the traditional choreography but moved the setting to 1840s Louisiana, retitling it “Creole Giselle.”) “It was about extending people’s perception of what this art form could say, that it was many, many different kinds of styles, other than just trying to reproduce that 19th century classicism — though we did that as well,” she said.
Like all great stories, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s history has had its ups and downs: In 2004, after mounting debt, the painful decision was made to put the company on hiatus in order to keep the school afloat. The plan, Johnson said, was for the pause to perhaps last a year; it stretched to eight.
In 2009, Johnson (then editor-in-chief of Pointe magazine, which she founded) got a call from Mitchell. “He said he was stepping down and he wanted me to take over,” she remembered. “He said, ‘Your job is to bring the company back.’ ” It took a few years but the job got done: Dance Theatre of Harlem returned as a performing/touring company in 2012. It now has 18 dancers.
One of them will have a homecoming during DTH’s Seattle run. Crystal Serrano was born in Denver but grew up in Lynnwood, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her Mexican American family of five. She studied dance at Olympic Ballet School in Edmonds, and credits teacher Daniel Wilkins with opening a crucial door: When she was reluctant to audition for School of American Ballet’s summer program because of expense, he paid her fee and insisted that she go. She did and was accepted, which led to training on scholarship at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and professional experience at Sacramento Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre and Ballet San Antonio.
Last year, she joined Dance Theatre of Harlem, an experience that has been “amazing, because I get to share my story and I think it fits perfectly for what Arthur Mitchell meant in his legacy,” she said, on the phone from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the company is performing. “Everyone should have the opportunity … Having all these different ethnicities and backgrounds, it’s showing that there’s a place for everyone.”
Serrano had a brief opportunity to work with Mitchell before his death in September. “In just two rehearsals, I could see how he worked and I wanted more of that,” she said. “It made you want to work so much harder yourself, not just to be better at ballet, but to be the best person you can be — to show how far you’ve come, and tell your story.”
There’s still much progress to be made on diversity in the classical-dance realm — a world that’s historically been so white that dance-shoe manufacturers are only just now beginning to make pointe shoes in flesh tones other than pale pink. (Johnson remembers individually coloring each of her shoes with dye — the kind used for satin bridesmaid shoes — and face powder, to make them match her skin tone and create a unified line.) But the endurance of Dance Theatre of Harlem pays tribute to Mitchell’s pioneering vision 50 years ago.
In the future, Johnson hopes to see the company grow and continue to spread its message of empowerment. And she’s hoping it can do nothing less than transform the role of dance in people’s lives. “I think people think of ballet as something that belongs to somebody else, something very fancy and not essential,” she said. “But it is essential to a good life to see something that lifts them up, and transports them.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 28, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $25-$65; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org