Dance Theatre of Harlem at 50: Inside Rehearsals As the Pioneering Company Celebrates a Major Milestone

December 2, 2018

“Keep the rhythm going,” calls Robert Garland, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s resident choreographer, from the front of the studio. Five company women pulse through a series of syncopated pony steps, upright arabesque sissonnes and funky, Motown-inspired dance moves. It’s an open rehearsal in early September, and the company is giving curious audience members a sneak peek at Garland’s upcoming world premiere—one of several new works this season as DTH celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, DTH was groundbreaking in its makeup of mostly African-American dancers, and its insistence that they could excel in ballet. “We were a bunch of dancers who had been told no, we couldn’t do this, and Mr. Mitchell was giving us a chance to show that we could,” says artistic director Virginia Johnson, a founding company member and former principal. “He was a very demanding taskmaster—he knew there was something very important to prove and that it was on us to prove it.”

Photography by Kyle Froman for Pointe

For the 50th-anniversary season, the company is bringing back favorite ballets vital to its history, such as Dougla and Adagietto #5, as well as brand-new works. Garland’s neoclassical ballet, to music by Michael Nyman, is at times reminiscent of Balanchine’s Agon (Mitchell famously starred in the 1957 premiere). “But the idea is more that you’re watching The Temptations or The Four Tops,” says Garland. He adds that when he was dancing with DTH, the company’s primarily African-American culture and its classical, Western European aesthetic lived in two different strata. “In my work, it’s important to me to have those two things present and on an equal basis—I believe that holistic approach is the kind of world that Arthur Mitchell believed in and wanted to see.”

A few weeks earlier, Mitchell had worked with the dancers in preparation for the season. Sadly, he passed away at age 84 shortly after Pointe photographed Garland’s rehearsal. Here, company members reflect on his legacy.