A ballet dancer pirouettes around the Harlem studio, her spins reflected in the mirrors that surround her. But her foot, encased in a hardened toe slipper, suddenly misses a step and she trips. She catches herself before she falls, grasping one of the studio’s barres. Her instructor gently tells her to try the move again. She does – and this time, her footwork is precise.
Only a year ago, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s rehearsal studios at 466 W. 152nd St. were quiet. There was no music, no performances for which to prepare. There were no professional dancers, only students who one day hoped to make it to the world stage.
And now, after an eight-year hiatus brought on by a $2.3 million debt, the studios are alive again as DTH prepares to launch its 2012-2013 season. The tour starts Oct. 20 in Louisville, Ky., and ends June 23 at the Jacob Pillow Dance Festival in Lee, Mass. The company will be in New York from April 8-14 at the Rose Theater.
“It’s awesome that the company is back because I think it’s a company that the world needs to see,” said Ashley Murphy, 27, a returning dancer. “You don’t see many African-Americans in ballet.”
“It kind of came as a surprise because we didn’t know anything about it,” she said of the company’s shutdown. “One minute we had a job, the next we didn’t.” Murphy had to return to her hometown of Shreveport, La., to teach at a local ballet school.
In 2004, the company’s “valley of debt” was too deep to continue, and in order to keep running at all, artistic director Virginia Johnson said, the performance company shut down; the professional training program continued to operate.
Most dance companies operate at a deficit and DTH was no exception; several companies shut down in 2011 due to financial troubles, such as the 940 Dance Company in Kansas. “Expenses are tremendous, and you can’t keep raising ticket prices,” Johnson said.
To keep the company afloat, the organization in 2009 came up with a five-year plan to assess what was sustainable. It trimmed its roster of dancers from 44 to 18, which significantly reduced the company’s expenses.It raised nearly $400,000 earlier this year at a gala honoring Harry Belafonte.
The cuts mean a change to the repertoire. DTH will no longer be able to perform Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” in which Johnson once starred, and other large story ballets from its earlier years. But Johnson said trimming gives the company freedom with new works.
“We’ve got to be a leaner, meaner tour company than we ever were in the past,” she said.
Meanwhile, board members went to major funders — the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, BNY Mellon and Bloomberg L.P. – and convinced them that DTH’s plan would work. The foundations agreed to help, but continue to closely monitor DTH’s finances, said Johnson.
Robert Garland, the company’s resident choreographer and a former principal dancer, will unveil a new work for the tour: “Gloria,” set to music by Francis Poulenc. He has taught since 1997 and, during the company’s break, learned to be a webmaster so the organization could take donations online.
Garland said he wanted to choreograph a work that had a spiritual basis, in tribute to his church, which helped him through the past couple of years without DTH.
“I’ve had this music for about 20 years, but I was always afraid to do it,” he said. “I’m ready now to finally tackle this.”
“Gloria” will premiere in Louisville. As part of his choreography, Garland will find seven children in each city to perform the last act. The company has done this before with adults, but this is the first time they will be working with kids, part of an effort to engage communities. While the company was inactive, Garland spent much time teaching children to dance, something he described as a “blessing in disguise.”
Mitchell, now 78, focused on dance education when he first started DTH in 1969 with the late Karel Shook, one of the few white ballet masters in the 1950s and 1960s who encouraged black dancers. Mitchell was the first black male dancer in the New York City Ballet, which he joined in 1955. He quickly rose to principal dancer.
He left Ballanchine’s company in 1966 for Broadway and in 1968, the U.S. State Department asked him to form the National Ballet Company of Brazil to help build stronger relations with South America. Mitchell was on his way to the airport when he heard that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
“He asked himself why he was going off to some foreign country when he had this expertise to give to the people in his own country, and to his own community,” said Johnson. “He could see the power of this art form to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Mitchell wanted to share his art with not only the children of Harlem, but with any child who wanted to learn about ballet. So he opened a school of dance.
Johnson was there from the start, and became DTH’s prima ballerina.
She began her ballet training as a young child in Washington, D.C., and later majored in dance at New York University. But along the way, she recalled being told: “There aren’t any black ballerinas. There’s no place for you to do this.” She found a place in the concrete and linoleum basement of a church on 121st Street and Morningside Avenue where Mitchell had started giving ballet lessons.
Johnson retired in 1997 and returned when Mitchell stepped down as artistic director in 2009 and asked her to take his place.
Lukas Jackhart, 18, is a scholarship student from London. As a child, he would dance around his grandmother’s living room. He said he screamed when his mother took him to his first lesson because he had to wear what he thought were “girl’s shoes.” But dance became a passion for him – shoes and all.
“I love it here,” he said. “I’m doing what I want to do, and I think that’s the most important thing. I feel like everyone here — we’re all on the same page, we’re all striving toward the same thing.”