A Vision That Became a Troupe
Dance Theatre of Harlem marks its 20th anniversary
SAN FRANCISCO — `WE are American classicists, dancing in a neo-classical style,'' says Arthur Mitchell, founder and director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. And it isn't hyperbole when he suggests that his company of 60 dancers has re-defined classical ballet in its 20 years of existence. To celebrate the anniversary, the troupe recently toured America for 15 weeks, culminating in performances at City Center in New York City. The tour included the first-ever evening of all Bronislava Nijinska ballets [see review at left] - ``Les Biches,'' ``Les Noces,'' and ``Rondo Capriccioso'' - all choreographed by the sister of meteoric dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.
To be the first company to present such an evening is quite a coup for the first all-black classical dance company. Founded originally as a school, Arthur Mitchell's vision grew into a company that is unique for having many of its founding members still actively dancing in it. One reason may be the unusual way in which Mr. Mitchell treats his dancers.
Dance Theatre of Harlem is not the typical artists-versus-administrators troupe. In fact, Mitchell holds weekly meetings of a dance committee composed of senior members of the company, in which all aspects of running the company are discussed. Not only does this help the professionals understand their part in the Dance Theatre of Harlem ``family,'' but it also prepares them for a second career. Many graduates have gone on to found their own troupes elsewhere or to go into other fields. Company grads include a medical doctor, an assistant district attorney, and an IBM executive.
As Mitchell puts it, ``A dancer becomes more of an artist the longer she or he dances. Dancers need the challenge of dramatic ballets, such as those we've added to the repertory by choreographers DeMille, Butler, Robbins.'' Mitchell has also commissioned new works by contemporary choreographers John McFall, Glen Tetley, and Garth Fagan. Mitchell himself just choreographed ``John Henry'' - his first new ballet in 13 years.
Mitchell brought to his own company the standards of the New York City Ballet, his alma mater. Balanchine choreography still comprises the bulk of the Dance Theatre of Harlem's repertory, but Mitchell is also committed to doing the full range of American dance.
``If the technical base is right,'' he says, ``you can do anything else on top.'' This includes ethnic dance, jazz, modern, and the full-length classics. While Mitchell admits that he was originally criticized for his repertoire's eclectic look, he says the fact is now well established that a company can dance anything. ``Versatility gives us a wide range and makes dance more palatable to audiences.''
In addition to giving scholarships to his students, teaching them the technical aspects of dance, and maintaining the school's accreditation so that students can receive college credit for their dance classes, Mitchell has expanded the constituency of both his classes and his audiences.
For instance, during their San Francisco Opera House stop on the national tour, Dance Theatre of Harlem offered lecture/demonstrations free to school students and senior citizens, many of whom had never been in a theater in their lives.
And Mitchell still has ambitious plans for the future. The Olympic Village of the Allied Arts is about to break ground in the same New York block where the company's school and rehearsal building are located. The village will include dormitories for students studying on scholarship from other states. For instance, Mitchell invited 10 eight-year-olds from Los Angeles to study at his New York school last year, placing them in homes with families.
But Mitchell has even bigger and, as always, original ideas. He wants to implement an ``incubation period for dancers - time to regenerate, just take classes and not perform,'' he says. ``We don't expect a race horse to work all the time. Yet dancers take class, rehearse, and perform all in the same day.''
Next year the company will reproduce the story ballet ``Coppelia'' with Frederick Franklin, the former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo star who mounted ``Giselle'' for the company. Franklin recently came on board as artistic advisor and intends to make a ``Coppelia'' story which befits the multi-racial troupe.
``The stigma of art is gone,'' says Mitchell. ``We compare [dance] to basketball and football.'' When his career began, Arthur Mitchell was the only black ballet dancer. Now, primarily as a result of the tremendous success - and visibility - of his own company, ``there are role models for blacks in ballet.''