Emboldening classical ballet, the Dance Theater of Harlem takes up the old and gives it an articulate, contemporary spin. The group sharpens the edge of the familiar with a bit of bombast, but always with impeccable classical precision. Arthur Mitchell founded... [more]
Emboldening classical ballet, the Dance Theater of Harlem takes up the old and gives it an articulate, contemporary spin. The group sharpens the edge of the familiar with a bit of bombast, but always with impeccable classical precision.
Arthur Mitchell founded the DTH in 1969, inspired to create the first African American ballet group after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Mitchell and his partner Karel Shook created a small school of 30 students in Greenwich Village with the intention of exploding the stereotype that black people are anatomically incapable of performing ballet. They also wanted to embellish classical ballets with a distinctly ethnic edge. Within months the enrollment was up to 400.
As an offshoot of the school Mitchell formed a ballet troupe, which had its debut at the New York Guggenheim in 1971. Almost immediately, the athletic precision of the dancers, as well as the subtle revisions of classic choreography, grabbed the notice of the dance community.
Originally an exclusively black establishment, DTH is now open to people of all ethnicities. Costumes are now dyed to represent an entire spectrum of skin colors, emphasizing DTH's commitment to transcending barriers imposed by race and ethnicity. Their commitment also informs their adaptations of classical ballets, which they reinterpret with new racial and narrative aspects. The classic "Giselle," for example, was fashioned by DTH to take place in New Orleans, giving the traditional ballet a nuanced Creole flavor that won the praise of countless critics. In 1980 they performed "Swan Lake Act II," their first nineteenth-century revision; a year later they created a controversial adaptation of Nijinsky's "Les Biches."
DTH has had the opportunity to perform a number of George Balanchine's ballets. Mitchell was a student of Balanchine's for years, and the older man's influence is evident in many of Mitchell's works. Among Balanchine's more celebrated ballets is "Bugaku," a thoroughly erotic piece which, if its sexual content had not been explicit enough in its original performances, was certainly rendered so by DTH. Some argued that Mitchell's take on the
ballet was a bit too explicit; others found the heightened Eros enticing -- an exemplary exposition of the erotic nature of all dance.
The technical mastery of classical ballet, fused with anachronous ethnic elements, and a blatantly Balanchinian flare, together make DTH one of the most thorough, elegant, and innovative ballet groups presently performing. [show less]