Vail International Dance Festival hosts sold-out Dance Theatre of Harlem show | VailDaily.com

Vail International Dance Festival hosts sold-out Dance Theatre of Harlem show

Kate Penner
Special to the Daily
The Dance Theatre of Harlem has grown over the past four years to a 14-member roster with a New York City Center season and national and international tours.
Rachel Neville | Special to the Daily |

Vail International Dance Festival schedule

• Dance Theatre of Harlem — 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, Vilar Performing Arts Center, Beaver Creek (sold out)

• Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance — 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Vail

• Ballroom Spectacular — 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Vail

• Dance TV — 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13, Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Vail

For a full schedule, including Master Classes and fringe events, visit vaildance.org or call 888-920-ARTS (2787).

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Vail Dance.

VAIL — It has been 12 years since Dance Theatre of Harlem’s main touring company — its public face to much of the dance world — was suspended after protracted financial difficulties left it unable to continue daily operations. As suddenly as it had burst onto the scene, the company disappeared from the radar, leaving a hole in the landscape of American dance.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was born of an urgent need in the eyes of its founder, Arthur Mitchell, a Harlem native who rose to prominence as a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet in the 1950s. George Balanchine created seminal roles for him — Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the pas de deux in “Agon” — which served as an enormous artistic opportunity for any dancer, let alone a black dancer in pre-civil rights America.

But it was the tumult of the 1960s and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that pushed Mitchell to create his greatest work. Mitchell had experienced firsthand the lack of opportunity offered to young black children to engage in the arts. And in ballet, he saw a historically white classical art form that had altered the trajectory of his life; as a result, he believed in its ability to open doors and change lives.

So at the height of a successful performing career, he stepped away from the stage to build what was to become the first fully integrated classical ballet company of its kind.

Community outreach and arts exposure were central to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s mission from its start, exposing thousands of children and families to ballet who otherwise would not have been able to afford the opportunity. And in the broader dance landscape, the company was forcefully refuting the commonly held belief that blacks were unsuitable for ballet.

Onstage, large-scale performance opportunities came one after the next, establishing the company as a force with which to be reckoned. Masterpieces created by the company such as “Firebird,” “Creole Giselle” and “Dougla” garnered critical acclaim and were performed in tandem with Balanchine works “Agon” and “Bugaku,” further establishing Dance Theatre of Harlem’s reputation as a formidable neoclassical company.

‘BALLET BELONGS TO EVERYONE’

Ambitious goals and demands made the usually challenging task of keeping a ballet company financially afloat all the more daunting, however. Financial problems grew in severity until, in late 2004, with no remaining options, the company was dissolved.

While for many audience members outside Harlem, Dance Theatre of Harlem disappeared from view, its ongoing education and arts outreach programs rose in importance, as the board of directors worked to prioritize operations and ensure the return of the company. Then, in 2012, after eight long years, millions in fundraising and the appointment of Virginia Johnson as artistic director, the new Dance Theatre of Harlem company re-launched.

Beginning with modest touring schedules and a small group of dancers, the company has grown over the past four years to a 14-member roster with a New York City Center season and national and international tours.

“(The old company) left a mark and legacy in people’s hearts all over the world,” fourth-year dancer Lindsey Croop said. “They remember the energy and the fire of the old company (and) the memories have stayed alive.”

Though Johnson has suggested that the nearly decade-long absence may have had broad consequences in inspiring young people of color to enter the art form, the company continues to forge ahead with its mission to explore diversity in dance in all its forms, most recently featuring a full evening of female-choreographed works at its City Center season.

“Dance Theatre of Harlem encourages people to be expansive in the ways that they think because it continues to break traditional norms. … It celebrates culture in all ways — not just African-American culture,” said Jorge Andres Villarini, a second-year company member. “The most important role that (Dance Theatre of Harlem) plays in the dance community is far beyond the artistic side of things. … We have a message that ballet belongs to everyone.”