In 2004, many thought they were witnessing the end of a trailblazing artistic institution when the Dance Theatre of Harlem halted performances and dispersed its dancers due to a multi-million dollar debt. Sure, they said they were just going on “hiatus,” but who doesn’t try to spin things in a positive light? Though the company’s school remained open, America’s first African-American classical ballet company appeared unable to get itself out of a financial rut. The anticipated one-year pause soon became a nine-year slumber.
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But in April, the sleeping beauties awoke. A newly formed – and streamlined – company of 18 dancers (down from 44) performed in front of supportive New York audiences to encouraging reviews. And this week, beginning May 30, the resurrected Dance Theatre of Harlem plays five shows at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, one of the first stops on the new company’s first world tour.
The elder company, however, did swing through in 1981, performing in Caesarea, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For DTH alumnus and resident choreographer Robert Garland, who started dancing with the company in either 1983 or 1984 (he can’t remember) the company’s return is a symbolic meeting of cultures.
“There has always been a very close connection between African-Americans and people of Jewish heritage,” he says, pointing to Jewish-American involvement in the Civil Rights struggles in the 1960s, the movement that directly led to DTH’s establishment. For that reason, Garland sees the visit to Israel as a “closing of the circle.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American dancer of the prestigious New York City Ballet (he joined in 1955), and Karel Shook. George Balanchine, the revered choreographer of City Ballet, famously paired Mitchell with a white ballerina in a legendary duet that couldn’t even be aired on TV in America because of racial segregation at the time.
Because of this historical significance, and its subsequent troubles, DTH is a symbol of both what is possible and what is lacking, both how far America has come and how far it has to go. Representation of minorities in classical ballet has been embarrassingly low and one of the company’s primary goals is to open up that world to young dancers from all backgrounds with rigorous training and access to the classic repertoire.
But that’s all domestic politics. For foreign audiences, Garland says, the company represents both America’s celebrated neo-classical ballet tradition and the equally celebrated diversity of its population.
“Dance Theatre of Harlem has always had a rich history of what Mitchell called our eclecticism,” says Garland. “Our eclecticism is our strength. Our repertory now is as diverse as our dancers… We try to hit all the bases.”
In the beginning, he points out, Mitchell was chided for featuring such a broad spectrum of choreographers but it turns out that was another trail the company blazed. Now, it’s pretty standard for major ballet companies to invite a fun mix of choreographers in different styles and with different influences to challenge their dancers and audiences.
“From a dance perspective, we show the best America has to offer, it’s in our mission,” Garland says. “It’s that openness that people initially gravitate toward and love.”
The program they bring to Tel Aviv reflects both reverence for the past (namely, the “Black Swan,” from 19th-century Russian ballet master Marius Petipa with music by Tchaikovsky) and a forward-thinking vision, the latter of which falls largely on the shoulders of Garland, whose is presenting two of his works.
“Gloria” features music by Francis Poulenc, the French composer hailing from the early 20th century, and “Return” is set to the tunes of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, which already tell you a little something about the range and attitude of the company. Both represent different eras in Garland’s, and the company’s, lives.
“Return,” which is 13 years old, or bar-mitzvah age, is what Garland describes as a cross-cultural conversation between African-American cultural dances and the classical ballet. “It seemed crazy when I first presented it,” he says, but adds that audiences love the music and the mash-up of movement vocabularies.
“Gloria,” which was choreographed for the new company, has what Garland, who calls himself a Christian, says is “a spiritual base to it.” The ballet is dedicated to his church in Harlem, which gave him hope, and to the spiritual feeling that a place of worship can evoke.
“I’m hoping people in Israel pick up on that,” he says. “It’s the land of the three great religions. I hope the dancers understand how amazing that is. [Israel is] really a remarkable country where I think people are freely allowed to get in touch with their spiritual side. Dance has a spiritual side. I think dancing there will help our dancers get in touch with that.”
“Gloria,” he says, is really the story of the Exodus, a “potent catalyst,” he says, for the Civil Rights movement. “As Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go’ and we took that to heart.” As a result, he thinks audiences here will easily connect.
“People of the Jewish faith will be able to look at ‘Gloria’ and see their history as well,” he says, choking up slightly.
“Oh, sorry, I’m getting emotional here!”
And with a whisper, he adds, “Thank you, Lord.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center:
Thursday, May 30 at 8 P.M.
Friday, May 31 at 1 P.M. and 9:30 P.M.
Saturday, June 1 at 9 P.M.
Sunday, June 2 at 8 P.M.
More information and tickets here.