Beside a lively basketball court, a dancer looms over New York City’s skyline. He leaps suspended in a pas de chat, his legs like a diamond and his arms pushing into infinity. Confidently and triumphantly, this emblem sits atop the studios of Dance Theatre of Harlem, which host a vanguard that is devoted to breaking down barriers in ballet.
From April 23 to 27, Dance Theatre of Harlem is celebrating its 45th anniversary. Since its founding in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the ensemble has proven itself to be a progressive force within the dance world, questioning the traditional image of the classical ballerina. Mitchell himself was the first permanent African-American dancer in a major company, and during the civil rights movement, he believed that it was his duty to provide a venue for young people of any race or ethnicity to try their hand at the arts. When he began Dance Theatre of Harlem, it was not the United States’ first racially inclusive collective of dancers. However, it was the first to overcome the obstacles faced by people of color in a historically white, privileged occupation and become an enduring presence.
“Ballet has been considered an elitist art form, and I think that there are people who want it to remain that way,” Artistic Director Virginia Johnson said. “It [Dance Theatre of Harlem] was really about letting people understand that the classical arts are the highest expression of humanity, and that humanity does not have a color, and that we need to challenge people to elevate themselves—whether you’re polka dot or pink or black or orange.”
By Alexandra Villarreal Spectator Senior Staff Writer