Local students made for an enthusiastic crowd as dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem performed a ballet demonstration at the Granada Theatre on Wednesday morning, just prior to the company’s performance at the venue last night.
Put on through UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Arts Adventure, an educational outreach assembly program for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, DTH members walked the students in the audience through the fundamentals of ballet before gradually combining those elements into four performance excerpts.
At 10:30 a.m., DTH dancer Christopher McDaniel greeted the kids, who were in high spirits throughout the program. He began the demonstration by telling the audience about DTH’s history. The company was started in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which inspired the former founder to do something that would open up opportunities for black people in Harlem to excel at ballet.
“Ballet was this old art form that started in the French courts of Louis the 14th and it was a very elite art form, where people who had a certain amount of money or a certain amount of clout were able to participate, so that left a lot of people out,” Mr. McDaniel began.
He continued, “As Mr. Mitchell broke the ground that he broke, we now have a company that is very celebratory of multi-ethnicities,” he said.
The dancer then got underway explaining the five ballet feet positions, at which time the curtain came up and revealed four male and four female dancers on stage standing at a ballet barre, which Mr. McDaniel called “the beginning of our success.” The music started and the dancers began with the basic plie, which kicked off a succession of technique demonstrations from tendu, en croix, the five arm positions, and a plethora of others. Kids in the audience let out cheers as the dancers’ ballet moves increased in trickiness and became more visually impressive. Many audibly said “wow” as the male dancers moved across the stage while lifting the female dancers.
Following a stage lighting demonstration presented by DTH dancer Daphne Lee, the students then got the opportunity to see the dance and non-dance elements of ballet come together in a fully choreographed dance. DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson then came out to introduce three ballet excerpts that the company features during demonstrations: A dance tribute to Harlem called “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” the four-woman “Belief” section of the ballet “Vessels,” and the classical ballet “Le Corsaire.”
Prior to the fourth and final excerpt, Mr. McDaniel returned to the stage and asked for audience volunteers to illustrate “social dancing.” All at once, the kids in the audience rose to their feet with their hands in the air, shouting for him to choose them. Once he had his volunteers, Mr. McDaniel told the kids, “show us the hottest dances you are doing in Santa Barbara.” While many of the kids stood shyly when the music came on, a few of them cut loose into the freestyle of their choice, after which Mr. McDaniel led them through a series of plies before letting them do another round of freestyle.
The lucky students who got to volunteer were then sent back into the crowd to enjoy the final excerpt, a section of the ballet “Return.”
“‘Return’ is a special ballet for us because it really shows what we do at Dance Theatre Harlem, which is we take the classical style, the classical technique, and the classical vocabulary, and we mix it with some social dancing like we just did with you all,” Mr. McDaniel explained.
Set to the James Brown song “Mother Popcorn,” the dance finished off the demonstration incorporating all of the ballet techniques shown throughout the hour. Kids in the audience clapped along with the music and cheered as the dancers performed social dancing like they did, only professional. In an interview with the News-Press following the demonstration, Ms. Johnson said that the students’ enthusiasm is exactly the kind of response she always hopes DTH receives from an audience.
“They were great,” she said of the kids. If they were ever told to be quiet during the demonstration, the artistic director was thrilled that they weren’t.
“The objective of the dem is to get them engaged and so that breaks down and then they’re really just happy, and that’s what it’s about. We want them to leave here going, ‘I want to see that again. I want more of that,” she said.