Dance Theatre of Harlem

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first black classical ballet company. The group was founded in Harlem, New York City, by Arthur Mitchell, then of the New York City Ballet, the first African-American principal dancer of a classical company of international standing, and the ballet master Karel Shook (1920–85). The company began as a school for 30 students in the summer of 1968. Classes were conducted with the doors open so that passersby could watch the students at the barre; at the end of the summer the school had 400 students. Mitchell began taking his students on lecture-demonstration tours in 1969, and by 1970 had a professional company of 20. The group debuted in 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and performed later that year at the Spoleto festival in Italy. After two European tours and three national tours, the company had its successful first full season in New York City in 1974. With a style based upon 20th-century classicism, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is noted for graceful and vigorous performances of works by such choreographers as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Mitchell. In 1981 it became the first African-American ballet company to have a season at Covent Garden, London, and in 1982 the company had its first season at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City. Its dancers have included Stephanie Baxter, Virginia Johnson, Eddie Shellman, Mel Tomlinson, Donald Williams, and Alicia Graf. Economic difficulties resulted in a strike (1997), subsequent financial belt-tightening, and temporary shutdowns of the school (2004) and company (2004–12). Virginia Johnson succeed Mitchell as artistic director in 2009. The company also sponsors an educational and community outreach program, Dancing through Barriers.

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