Harlem dancers leap to stage and classroom

One of the delights on opening night as the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) celebrated its 30th season was the live appearance of the Soweto String Quartet, along with two drummers, to accompany the New York premire of "South African Suite."

But before the curtain went up, these fine musicians had another gig to play for the children studying music in DTH's after-school program at P.S. 153, on 147th Street and Amsterdam Ave. in Harlem.

From the start, Dance Theatre of Harlem has never wavered in its mission to combine artistic excellence with education and an awareness of social issues.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Mitchell, founder and artistic director of the company, thought about how he could provide more opportunities like those he found at New York's High School of Performing Arts and later as the first male African-American to become a permanent member of a major ballet company, the New York City Ballet.

He formed DTH in the summer of 1968, teaching dance classes to neighborhood children in a remodeled garage in Harlem. The company was added a year later.

"I can't believe I've done all of this in 30 years," Mr. Mitchell says, referring to his accomplishments, which include the school on 152nd Street where 1,000 students study dance and the allied theatrical arts, and a community outreach program entitled "Dancing Through Barriers." He's also responsible for a respected professional ballet company that tours the United States and around the globe.

The DTH's two-week season at City Center (Sept. 21-Oct. 3) preceded eight months of touring. It featured a number of the company's signature works. "South African Suite," an abstract ballet, combined classical dance technique with contemporary movement borrowed from the streets and the clubs. The work was inspired by DTH's 1992 six-week tour to South Africa just as apartheid was lifted, where the company played to sold-out houses.

The opening night gala also displayed the various styles this company has made its own. The balletic "Firebird" visually transported the audience to the Caribbean islands, where Africans worked as slaves; and the world premire of "Return," choreographed by Robert Garland. It featured funky dance moves, a departure from the company's basic training.

"A gala night should be a fun thing. To get a jaded audience screaming on opening night, that really says something," Mitchell said the following day.

The dancers who have come up through the school take on more than "the mantle of dancing when they join the company," Mitchell says. South African-born Augustus Van Heerden and Laveen Naidu, who co-choreographed "South African Suite," danced with DTH before taking on other assignments. The company shares the studios on 152nd Street with the school.

"All the components of DTH work with each other," Mr. Naidu says. "The children come to the school; they watch the dancers in rehearsal, and they are bused to the theater to see the performances. The dancers ... teach some of the classes and go out to the schools as instructors."

DTH runs "Dancing Through Barriers" community programs in Detroit; Washington, D.C.; and Miami, as well as New York.

Mitchell is passionate about combining his life as an artist with education.

"Finally, we've realized that the arts are the fourth "R" in education: reading, writing, arithmetic, and arts," he says.

As for the future, Mitchell envisions what he calls a "Noah's Ark" of a company. "We'll have two of everything, dancers from all over the world, touring the world. When future generations look back at our time, it's the culture that will survive," he says.

*Dance Theatre of Harlem will tour the US beginning Nov. 17 in Chapel Hill, N.C. For more information, log on to www.dancetheatreofharlem.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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