Dance Theatre of Harlem comes to Tucson
The groundbreaking Dance Theatre of Harlem brings it's national tour to Centennial Hall Thursday as part of Arizona Arts Live's 2022-2023 season.
Artistic director Virginia Johnson said the company will perform four ballets in Tucson: "Orange," "When Love," "Passage," and "Higher Ground."
"Orange" is choreographed by Stanton Welch to music by Antonio Vivaldi.
"This work uses classical ballet vocabulary in a non-narrative, pure-dance series of duets and group dances," Johnson said.
"When Love" is a romantic contemporary duet by Helen Pickett to music by Philip Glass. "Passage" was commissioned as part of the 1619 Commemoration by the Virginia Arts Festival.
"The work is a non-narrative reflection on a crucial turning point in our nation's history, arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the Hampton Roads, Virginia area in 1619," Johnson said.
And "Higher Ground" is resident choreographer Robert Garland's most recent ballet and is set to the music of Stevie Wonder.
"In this work, Garland uplifts and amplifies the message of Stevie Wonder's songs," Johnson said. "The dances are both joyous and profound and exemplify Dance Theatre of Harlem's mission to present work that is resonant and timely."
The Harlem dance company includes 18 dancers from places such as Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti, as well as from around the United States — not just New York, which is home to the ballet company.
The dancers, led by Johnson and Garland, are part of a legacy that began when Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded the company in New York City in 1969 during the civil rights movement.
Mitchell made his name in the ballet industry by becoming the first black principal dancer at the New York City Ballet in 1955. He was also "the famed protégé" of ballet titan George Balanchine.
He began his work in his community by offering ballet lessons in his hometown of Harlem. The space he provided became a place for dancers of all ethnic backgrounds to feel included and valid as performers in a world where dance wasn't available for people of color.
He recruited ballet master Karel Shook to teach at his garage-turned-dance studio, and together they brought the Dance Theatre of Harlem to life.
Johnson, who is currently the artistic director, is also a founding member of the company. She had been attending New York University as a dance major in 1969 when Mitchell invited her to join his budding project. Johnson was their principal dancer for almost two decades.
"When Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem, he had a vision for the art form that was inclusive, relevant and accessible to all," Johnson said. "This has been the mission of the organization from its founding. It is gratifying to see other companies across the country beginning to embrace his ideals."
After she retired from dance in 1997, Johnson founded Pointe Magazine and was the editor-in-chief of the publication until 2009, when she left to become artistic director of the dance company she helped create.
In 2020, when COVID-19 caused the world to shut down, the Harlem dance company stopped touring. Johnson said they continued to work during the lockdown through Zoom or "in special creative 'bubbles' outside of the city."
"The company resumed touring in 2021, and we were gratified by the enthusiastic reception of audiences who came to experience live performance again," Johnson said. "The lessons of the past two years have been to take nothing for granted, to double down on doing what you believe in and to be grateful for the opportunities at hand."
The two-hour performance will feature both classical and neoclassical works by Balanchine.
"I hope everyone goes away loving ballet and wanting more," Johnson said. "Ballet is a wide and deep river that belongs to all."
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.