50 years since Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem to open up opportunities for black dancers to train and perform ballet, the company is making its first-ever stop in Santa Barbara during its anniversary tour. As part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, 17 dancers under the direction of artistic director Virgina Johnson will perform a program of four ballet works at the Granada Theatre on November 6, ranging from classical to contemporary and all the while presenting DTH’s vision of “what ballet can be.”
In an interview with the News-Press, Ms. Johnson said this vision refers to the art form’s ability to be expressive of many different cultures and not just the western European culture it is most commonly associated with. While the company’s dancers come from various ethnic backgrounds, DTH aims to reflect different cultures with the dances themselves and not just with its personnel.
“At our root, it’s what we dance as well as who dances,” Ms. Jackson said.
Dancing a repertoire of 12 different ballets on rotation throughout this tour, the four the DHT dancers will perform on November 6 will begin with the classical piece “Orange.” This will then be followed by “This Bitter Earth,” named after the song made popular by African American rhythm and blues singer Dinah Washington which is used during the dumber. With its ballet movements in motion with Ms. Washington’s soulful singing, Ms. Johnson described “This Bitter Earth” as a melding of western European and African American culture to create an expression of “what love can be.”
The evening’s “centerpiece” as Ms. Johnson called it is “Passage.” Choreographed by Claudia Schreier to music composed by Jessie Montgomery, the artistic director commented that this number’s contents is demonstrative of DTH’s ethos that great ballet can be created by anyone.
“This is a work that has an African American female choreographer and an African American composer who are both working in the classical idiom,” Ms. Johnson said.
A founding member of DTH and one of its principal dancers from 1969 to 1997, Ms. Johnson remembered the days before the company’s founding, when black ballerinas were extraordinarily uncommon in America. At that time, Ms. Johnson was encouraged to do modern dancing or tap dancing, as ballet was not viewed as something for people with her skin color. However, Arthur Mitchell thought differently and sought to change that by founding of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“Arthur Mitchell said, ‘No, ballet isn’t divided by skin color, it’s divided by talent,’” Ms. Johnson recalled.
The DTH dancers will conclude their November 6 program with a performance of the contemporary ballet “Balamouk,” which translates to “Ship of Fools” in Romanian. Featuring klezmer music, Ms. Johnson said “Balamouk” should bring the curtain down with a joyful note.
“It’s a lot of fun, that piece. Five people are thrown together and find a way to be happy,” she said.
Tickets for Dance Theatre of Harlem’s November 6 performance at the Granada Theatre can be purchased on the venue’s website, www.granadasb.org, as well as the UCSB Arts & Lectures website, www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu. They cost between $71 and $86 for the general public and cost $20 for youth and UCSB students with a current student ID. The show begins at 8:00 p.m. at the Granada Theatre, located at 1214 State St.