Dance Theatre of Harlem, Year Two

Davon Doane and Ashley Murphy in Past-Carry-Forward. Photo by Rachel Neville.
Davon Doane and Ashley Murphy in Past-Carry-Forward. Photo by Rachel Neville.

Dance Theatre of Harlem is currently wrapping up its second season since its return under the steady leadership of Virginia Johnson. (You can read more about here here, in this long and wide-ranging interview from last year.)

Like last year, the dancers’ warmth and directness are a pleasure. Ashley Murphy is a knockout. Chrystyn Fentroy radiates joy. But the dancing is still uneven, and especially in the more classical works, it shows some strain, some sloppiness. Then there is the question of repertory, which Johnson is molding with an eye to the company’s history and identity. It’s a difficult job. You can read more about the season here, in my review for DanceTabs. Here’s a short excerpt:

“The opening and closing of Gloria are explosions of joy, in which toe-heel taps and shimmying shoulders feel organic, like part of a misa criolla. Several passages leave vivid after-images, as when Ashley Murphy hovers in profile, her strong feet shimmering like hummingbird wings. As she bends forward or arches toward the sky, she alternates between atonement and elation.”

Interview with Michaela DePrince (for DanceTabs)

Michaela DePrince and Sam Wilson of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by  Matthew Murphy.
Michaela DePrince and Sam Wilson of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

After posting my interview with the great American ballerina Virginia Johnson (now artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem) on DanceTAbs, I heard from the young dancer Michaela DePrince. Ms. DePrince, who danced with DTH for a year, has since moved on to Dutch National Ballet’s junior company, based in Amsterdam. As many of you know, Ms. DePrince was born in Sierra Leone, under very difficult circumstances in the civil war there. She lost her parents at a very young age, and saw some horrific events while living at an orphanage, including the killing of her pregnant teacher. Adopted by a New Jersey family, she has thrived. She discovered her love of ballet early, and went on to study at the Rock School in Philadelphia, and then the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school (affiliated with ABT) in New York. A few days ago, we chatted over email about her life, her training, and her career so far. The issue of racial inequality in ballet inevitably came up. It is her feeling (echoed by many others) that artistic directors are wary of taking non-white dancers for fear of upsetting the homogeneous “look” of the corps de ballet. It’s interesting, though, that in some countries, such as Cuba, this does not seem to be an issue. One of the great pleasures of seeing the Ballet Nacional de Cuba a couple of years ago at BAM, was seeing how mixed the ensemble really is, and what vitality this produces onstage. The company reflects the country; this, automatically, makes ballet seem of our time. You can read my interview with Michaela de Prince here.

Virginia Johnson, DTH, and the Question of Race

Virginia Johnson with her DTH dancers. Photo by Andrea Mohin for the Times.
Virginia Johnson with her DTH dancers. Photo by Andrea Mohin for the Times.

This summer, I spoke with Virginia Johnson, the longtime star of Dance Theatre of Harlem, who is now the troupe’s Artistic Director. You can see the interview, on DanceTabs, here.

Under Johnson’s tutelage, the company has returned from the brink for a successful first season. This fall, her dancers will perform at Fall for Dance in New York. In our interview, we talked about her life in dance, the rise, fall, and rise of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the very real challenge of diversity in ballet. Here’s an  excerpt: “I look at these dancers and I see that they’re not being corrected. There are some very basic things going on that reveal that they’re being ignored. And we see changes in them so quickly because they are finally getting corrections. The schools need to not only embrace the fact that ballet doesn’t have a color but actually work with the material in the room.”

The question of diversity in ballet is finally coming to people’s attention. Benjamin Millepied mentioned it in an interview related to his upcoming directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet, in comments that pissed off the French media. (He said, “I can’t run a ballet company now, today, and not have it be a company where people in the house can relate to, and recognize themselves in some ways.” Shocking.) ABT has just announced a new initiative whose mission is to reach out to minority communities through Boys and Girls Clubs across the us. (ABT’s Misty Copeland will be the ambassador for the program, which is called Project Plié.) Meanwhile, DTH will be there.

The Return of Dance Theatre of Harlem (for DanceTabs)

Michaela DePrince and Sam Wilson of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by  Matthew Murphy.
Michaela DePrince and Sam Wilson of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Dance Theatre of Harlem is back, after a hiatus of almost ten years. You can read my review of one of their programs, for DanceTabs, here.

And here’s a short excerpt:

“What is the place of a predominantly black American ballet company today, in our supposedly “post-racial” America? We have a black president and a black ambassador to the United Nations, and yet, if one looks at most of our ballet companies, there is nary a black dancer to be seen….The problem is more frustrating than simple racism.”

Wendy Whelan and Dance Theatre of Harlem at Jacob’s Pillow

Jacob’s Pillow just announced that both Wendy Whelan and the newly-revived Dance Theatre of Harlem will appear at the festival next summer. DTH will open the festival in June (19-23), with a program that includes Agon (Balanchine) and The Lark Ascending (Ailey). Then, in August, Whelan will perform an evening of duets—not solos, mind you— created for her by four contemporary choreographers: Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo.

This is exciting news indeed. Whelan, now in the latter part of her career at NYCB, is one of the most intriguing, soulful dancers around. Watching her, one sees the mental impulse that makes dance into more than a mere physical exercise, as well as the hunger to explore new territory. Lots to look forward to next summer.

A portrait of Wendy Whelan (and cat) by Andrea Mohin, for the New York Times.
A portrait of Wendy Whelan (and cat) by Andrea Mohin, for the New York Times.