The Dance Theater of Harlem has had its fair share of trials and tribulations over the last several years. But if Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, has her way, the theatre is on its way to being revitalized. After a 9 year hiatus, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is making a return. Beginning Wednesday the company will perform at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Johnson, who’s been with the theatre for 28 years, spoke about the efforts she’s trying to make:
“We still don’t see enough dancers of color in companies across the country,” Ms. Johnson said. “But I’m not lying when I say that people call me all the time saying, ‘I need dancers of color.’ It’s a deeper problem. It goes back further in time that we’re not training dancers of color, so our schools need to be more embracing, more welcoming, more aggressive.”
Ms. Johnson said she realizes that the School of American Ballet, one of the nation’s top schools and affiliated with City Ballet, is trying to be as proactive as it can. “Schools want to turn out the very best dancers, so they only go for people they think already fit inside the mold instead of thinking, ‘Let’s train people and see who rises to the top.’ I don’t ever mean lowering your standards. Standards are what ballet’s about. It’s opening the entry points to a broader pool of people and helping them take the next steps.”
Dance Theater’s audition process proved that to Ms. Johnson, who said she understood Dance Theater’s lengthy hiatus might have thwarted the ambitions of young, black ballet dancers. Whether or not their dream was to join Dance Theater, at least the company was a tangible prospect. That awareness gave Ms. Johnson extra incentive to get the troupe up and running. With so few outside dancers to draw from she decided to target members of the Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble — a junior company that served as the institution’s performing entity during the hiatus — to see who might transition into the professional group.
After 9 years in the making, a comeback definitely wasn’t an easy task financially. A five year plan was devised by Laveen Naidu, the theatre’s executive director, Johnson and a consultant has helped to reduce the company’s debt to $644,000. Naidu said the goal was to keep the company in the $5 million to $5.5 million range, which means raising $3.3 million to $3.6 million “a year from contributed sources and then earning the rest.”
When the Times asked Johnson, what is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, her reply was simple.
“It’s not just a job,” she said. “It’s not just a dance company. It’s a message. And the dancers are responding so well to the fact that they are bearers of this message in their physical selves and in their spiritual embodiment of this idea that you can make something of yourself.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem Returns After 9 Years