Dance Theatre Of Harlem In South Africa

Miles away from the violence in the Ciskei region, township children learn ballet, jazz, and tap from American dancers in an unusual outreach program in Johannesburg. The Harlem dancers also perform Sept. 15-27. A Monitor writer visited the Dance Theatre of Harlem prior to their South Africa trip.

By , staff

FREEDOM has always been an expensive thing." Martin Luther King's words grace the portrait that hangs in the black-and-white tiled lobby of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. That idea has never been more appropriate than now that Dance Theatre of Harlem is about to perform in Johannesburg.

Arthur Mitchell, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, formed the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) 23 years ago as part of his commitment to youth from his neighborhood following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The company is composed primarily of African-Americans, but it includes a mixture of races.

DTH, presently located in Harlem between a weed-filled lot and an apartment building, opened as a small ballet school in the basement of a Harlem church. The company now owns a building in the heart of the neighborhood where Mitchell grew up. The school is packing up and moving to Manhattan for about a year while their building is renovated and expanded.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Dance Theatre's invitation from the Market Theatre Foundation to reopen the renovated Civic Theatre in Johannesburg is unprecedented. In addition to performances, the company's dancers plan workshops in the townships for school-age children, community outreach programs with lecture-demonstrations, and master classes.

"We're dealing with a total unknown - a country that has been shut off. We are opening the doors. This is the first cultural exchange since the [world economic] bans were lifted. Imagine...," says Mr. Mitchell.

Before signing the contract, Mitchell insisted on several conditions: All political sides had to endorse the engagement, including Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party, Frederik de Klerk's National Party, and the Pan Africanist Congress.

He also insisted that the workshops be free of charge, that free buses be provided from the townships, and that subsidized tickets be available. "It's one thing to say the audience is integrated," he says. "It's another thing to set the prices so these people can afford it.

"The performances normally would be the focal point. It's almost secondary here in terms of community outreach, which is the crux of this tour," says Mitchell, interviewed just days before the first dancers left for Johannesburg. Dressed casually in a mauve open-necked shirt and black trousers, Mitchell explains that the outreach program is intended to teach people all facets of a dance company - from the artistic side to the business end. To do that he is taking to South Africa people involved in every

aspect of the company - board members, conductors, choreographers, dancers, and wardrobe consultants.

These programs are being offered to aspiring South African dancers through the Market Theatre Foundation, which provides educational programs to bridge the educational gap caused by apartheid in rural areas. DTH has received numerous requests for classes, including one for a tap class from a tribe in the townships whose native dance resembles tap. (DTH's stage manager, Roger Spivy, used to tap on Broadway so he will present a tap lecture/demonstration.)

Mitchell sees art as a common denominator. "Whether you're in Harlem or Europe or South Africa, it's the quality of what you do," he says. "Truth is correct and will hit everybody."

While dancers stretch at the barre, Cassandra (Sandy) Phifer, principal dancer with the company and director of the outreach programs, talks enthusiastically about the trip.

An advance team scouted locations for workshops in the townships and Johannesburg. In townships where it is unsafe to conduct workshops, residents will be bused into the city for classes. They plan to honor all requests, while exercising caution, Ms. Phifer says.

For some of the company's dancers, this will be a trip home. Augustus (Gus) Van Heerden, ballet master of the company, and dancer Felicity de Jager were raised in Coronationville, a suburb of Johannesburg. They studied classical ballet there but were never able to perform professionally because of apartheid.

Things have changed in South Africa since the two dancers left; within the past couple of years dance companies have become integrated, they say. But this is the first time since the cultural ban has been lifted that a multicultural group has been invited to perform in South Africa.

Mr. Van Heerden studied classical ballet in Johannesburg and Capetown but had to come to the United States to perform professionally. "I didn't think this would happen while I was still dancing," he says. "Everyone there is looking forward to seeing us perform - we hope," he adds shyly. Both Van Heerden and Ms. de Jager have family there.

De Jager, who grew up one street over from Van Heerden, says she sees this trip as an opportunity to provide real incentive for children there. She sees herself as a living, dancing example.

Officials from the United States Information Agency briefed the dancers before they left, giving them background information on the situation in South Africa. "They pointed out the level of crime and violence is like being in New York. Be alert at all times. Like in New York, pay attention to what is going on around you," says Virginia Johnson, prima ballerina.

Ms. Johnson, who looked regal even in blue sweatpants and a white T-shirt knotted over a burgundy leotard, says, "I see it happening all over the world - people are real dubious about black people doing ballet. To see their wonderment, excitement, to know that anyone with an opportunity can do what they want to do. Dance, arts, are things that bring people together."

Dancer Luis Dominguez says he is interested in the audience reaction "because the program is designed for participation with the audience."

The continuing hold of apartheid is a major concern for the dancers. But, Mr. Dominguez says, "we're not going to do politics, we're going to dance. If change comes, it will come through the audience."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...