40th Annniversary of The Dance Theatre of Harlem
Ballet at a street festival? Students “rapping” about ballet in the New York State Supreme Court? A Creole version of the classical ballet Giselle? These out-of-the-box dance productions spring from the mission of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH).
DTH co- founders Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American male member of a major ballet company, and his mentor Karel Shook, shared a vision that DTH was “about returning the arts to the people to whom they belong and in perceiving them as necessary to daily life as they always should have been.”
Returning arts to the people is staging ballet in August city street heat, or re-setting Giselle in Louisiana, or reminding lawyers racing to “move this Court” that movement comes in many forms. The unique and meaningful education program at DTH elevates these endeavors from potential gimmickry to “Classically American®.”
From their first steps as beginners, DTH students experience Russian, English, and American dance training. The faculty includes former DTH company members. Depending on the program—Community, Pre-Professional, or Professional—students have a varied curriculum of ballet, tap, modern, jazz and African dance. They also study gymnastics, music, physical therapy, anatomy and dance history. DTH is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance, and is listed as an institution of higher learning by the New York State Department of Education.
Lisa Jo Sagolla, DTH dance history teacher, says, “I think you can always tell a dancer who has a sense of the history, of the style, of where the choreographer came from. It makes a difference in their style; it makes a difference in their ability to get a job. If they audition for Miami Ballet and they know something about Edward Villela, it’s not so much in technique, but you see it in their style. Style is where you see historical understanding. It’s something that permeates their dancing in a way that it’s obvious to the rest of us, the older folks, perhaps. It’s obvious when its not there.”
This is dance from the inside out. Most students think of dance from a technical point of view—faster movements, higher jumps, longer endurance. “There’s always one or two that are real buffs that want to know all this, but I wouldn’t say it was a top priority for the majority of the students. Some students are not at all interested in dance history, but they’re very interested in their future careers and what is going on today in the ballet world. So I use current events as the jumping off points. This year San Francisco Ballet is celebrating their 75th anniversary, it’s Alvin Ailey’s 50th, Lars Lubavitch’s 40th—I used those anniversaries as the framing device. We noted what celebration events were going on and I spoke about the history of each of those companies. I really try to find some news. When Lars did a new version of Othello, I went back and talked about the previous versions of Othello.”
She adds, “Whenever a famous dancer dies I bring in the obituaries. It’s an excuse to go back in history.”
If you want to see the results of this education driven institution, DTH hosts an Open House series, showcasing performances by students, the Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble®, and guest performers. The schedule is: January 11th, “Living the Dream...Celebrating Martin King Jr.”, February 15th, “Honoring The Elders: 40 Years at DTH,” March 8th “Arthur Mitchell at 75,” April 19th, “Jazz From Harlem With Love” and May 17th, “Sweet Harlem.” Mr. Mitchell generally introduces the performers and at the reception. This is DTH, up close and personal.#
Lauren Shapiro is dance accompanist at DTH and a reporter for Education Update.