By Walter Rutledge
The Dance Theatre of Harlem II will begin their New York debut season at the Joyce Theatre tonight. The company will present an encyclopedic program of contemporary and neoclassic works by emerging, established and renowned choreographers. It also marks the return of the Dance Theatre of Harlem moniker to New York audiences for the first time in eight years, since the company went on hiatus in 2004.
Through efforts initiated by former Artistic Director/Founder Arthur Mitchell, Executive Director Laveen Naidu, and Ensemble Director Keith Saunders the Ensemble began to increase their visibility through expanded performance opportunities. Over the last four years the company has built a formidable repertoire, with a strong group of young performers. Now under the direction of Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble will not only take to the stage, but will set the stage for the long waited return of Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2013.
I was recently asked, “In todays multi-cultural world do you think there still a need for a predominantly African- American ballet company?” The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 when ballet dancers of color were more likely to find work outside of the United States. Over the last four decades there has been many advances in the arts, but it has been slow and insufficient. There is not only a need for more minority representation on the stage but also behind it, choreographers, teachers, production and technical staff are also under represented (this is fodder for another article- coming soon). To answer the question, simply “Yes”.
Environments which are cultural inclusive tend to be more ethically diverse. In situations where there is no inclusion a few brave souls rise. Marion Cuyjet started the Judimar School in Philadelphia in 1948 after being dismissed from the Philadelphia Ballet Company when it was revealed that the fair-skinned Cuyjet was African- American.
Her steadfast belief was that the inherent art form of ballet was a mastering of a technique that was not delineated by color; became a major factor in her starting the Judimar School. Judimar produced artists that including Dolores Brown Abelson, Joan Myers Brown, John Jones, Tamara Guillebeaux, China White, Judith Jameson, Arthur Hall, Elmer Ball, and Donna Lowe Warren. After her school closed in 1971 Cuyjet continued to teach throughout Philadelphia her students include Dance Theatre of Harlem Resident Choreographer Robert Garland.
The need for a professional academy within the inner city has now turned from a novelty to a necessity. Discipline, dedication, teamwork, completion of tasks, and mastering a set of challenges are the cornerstone of arts training; they foster what I refer to as “the three selves”. Those arts prerequisites build self–esteem, which develops self-respect that grows into respect for others, and leads to self-reliance, which builds good citizenry and a stronger healthier community. The era of the “3 R’s only”, No Child Left Behind, and academic excellence based on test taking and scores has marginalized learning, especially in the inner city and has stressed the need for creativity in education.
Dance Theatre of Harlem has been in the forefront of arts education in the inner city. Following the Balanchine model of- first a school then a company, Dance Theatre of Harlem built a school then an internationally renowned company that has earned it a place in dance history. The Joyce season begins the next chapter in that legacy.
Performances begin tonight, Tuesday, February 7 at 7:30pm and continue Thursday, February 9 at 8:00pm and Saturday, February 11 at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets prices start at $10 and are on sale now at the Joyce Theater Box Office located at 175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street) or by calling 212-482-0800 or by visiting joyce.org. For group sales call the Dance Theatre of Harlem at 212-690-2800. For more information visit www.dancetheatreofharlem.org
1) Photography by Rachel Neville 2) Photograph courtesy of Marion Cuyjet Estate