Dance Theatre of Harlem: Back From the Dead

The legendary company, which has been on hiatus for almost 10 years, returns to Miller Outdoor Theatre this week.

By Adam Castañeda July 22, 2014

"Lark Ascending"

Dance Theatre of Harlem
July 23 at 8:30
Free tickets available at box office between 10:30 and 1 on the day of performance. Open seating on the hill.
Miller Outdoor Theatre
6000 Hermann Park Dr.

For many Houstonians, tomorrow night’s performance by the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) at the Miller Outdoor Theatre will be their first glimpse of the celebrated troupe. The last time DTH visited Houston was over a decade ago, shortly before the company’s 2004 announcement that the groundbreaking troupe would take an extended hiatus. The organization, founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, was crippled by debt and unable to sustain its 44-member company. In 2009, former DTH principal dancer Virginia Johnson was hired as artistic director. Along with executive director Laveen Naidu, also a former DTH dancer, Johnson has been instrumental in rebuilding the company, which debuted its first New York City performance in almost a decade last year.

Wednesday night’s program will open with resident choreographer Robert Garland’s Gloria, set to music by Francis Poulenc. “It’s an incredibly rich work about the Harlem that persists in people’s imagination, which comes from the great migration of African Americans in the ’20s and ’30s,” Johnson told me. Gloria isn’t just about the Harlem Renaissance—that great efflorescence of African American culture—but also about its spiritual character. “Even today there’s a church on every street corner [in Harlem],” Johnson explains. “There’s a great sense of reverence and order. Poulenc’s music is a distillation of the Catholic mass, and the dance is about having a spiritual dialogue with the Almighty.”


Though the Dance Theatre of Harlem has been instrumental in expressing the African American experience through dance, much of its legacy has been its literal recoloring of classical ballet. Last month, Houston audiences saw Karina Gonzalez grace the Wortham Center’s Brown Stage as Odile/Odette in Houston Ballet's Swan Lake, but ballerinas of color are still few and far between. To show the scope of DTH’s repertoire, tomorrow night’s program will also include the iconic pas de deux from Swan Lake’s third act, with Nayara Lopes dancing the lead role. “The discussion has always been about who can and who cannot dance these roles,” explains Johnson. “As classical dancers, it’s not unusual for us to put a black swan on stage; it’s part of our canon. We dance classical works, neoclassical works, and contemporary works. We can do all this, including the Swan Lake pas de deux.”

The program will conclude with Return, also by Garland. It’s a fitting closer because it’s the piece that best represents the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s signature aesthetic—a collision of high art and popular culture. Return utilizes classical choreography set to the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Yes, ballet as an art form is timeless, but so are such songs as “Mother Popcorn,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “I Got the Feelin’,” and “Call Me.” Johnson recalls how at a talkback session after one of the performances, a 16-year-old audience member said that she found herself in the piece, even though the music was of her parents’ generation. “Return is about that sensation of being alive, about being essentially human.”

Johnson said she was eager to bring her company back to Houston after a prolonged absence. “Houston has a fantastic dance audience. There’s amazing art there, and a sophisticated audience. We have something to say about this art form and what dance can create. It’s nice to be able to see something that speaks across categories.” 

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