Merlene Davis: Dance Theatre of Harlem brings diverse talent to area

Taureen Green and Ashley Murphy will perform at Kentucky State University.
Taureen Green and Ashley Murphy will perform at Kentucky State University.

Virginia Johnson was a founding member and a prima ballerina for the Dance Theatre of Harlem during its glory days, when ballet dancers of color could fulfill their dreams of performing on stage without battling racial prejudice.

"When I was a young dancer, I didn't see anyone who looked like me on stage," she said.

During a junior high school class visit to see a Martha Graham Dance Company performance, Johnson saw Mary Hinkson, the first black dancer in Graham's company.

"She came out on stage and my heart stopped," she said.

Now, just as then, it is important for everyone to see people who look like they do in a performance, Johnson said. That is why the first performance of a revitalized Dance Theatre of Harlem will feature seven young dancers from the Louisville area this weekend.

"It is really sweet to see such young talent," she said.

For 28 years, Johnson watched as DTH inspired young minorities before retiring and starting Pointe magazine, where she was editor-in-chief of the ballet publication from 2000 to 2009.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and the late Karel Shook as a school to inspire children in Harlem and offer them a chance to learn about dance and the arts. From there, the company grew into one of the most innovative dance companies in America.

In the midst of her new career with Pointe, she watched as DTH seemed to be gasping its last breath. The dance theater disbanded its professional company and lost more than 40 dancers in 2004 because of $2.3 million in debts. The school and an ensemble remained, but the glory seemed to have faded.

When Mitchell asked Johnson in 2009 to become the artistic director, Johnson agreed to help revitalize the company that is celebrating its 43rd anniversary.

"I returned because Arthur Mitchell asked me to, and you don't say no to Arthur Mitchell," she said. "He is a force of nature."

Working with Mitchell and Laveen Naidu, the executive director, the organization has been stabilized, and a rebirth is underway, she said.

Although an ensemble or junior company has toured for a couple of years, including at KSU last year, this year marks the first tour of DTH's new professional company, featuring 18 dancers. Ten members of the junior ensemble have stepped up to the main company, she said. "They are the backbone of this company."

It is a declaration of sorts that it is back.

Louisville is the first stop on a 21-city tour this season. The professional company will perform four works, including two that are world premieres, Saturday at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

Before that, Johnson will conduct movement classes at various elementary, middle and high schools in Louisville and Frankfort, and she will hold a master class Thursday at Kentucky State University, all in keeping with the company's efforts to teach and inspire. "It is an important part of our mission," she said.

That master class, and a performance Sunday at KSU, is free and open to the public.

Johnson said the performance at KSU will be "absolutely the same program" as the one in Louisville. She said the performances will be reaching different demographics, but "we don't feel like you deserve less."

After both performances, Johnson said, she hopes the audience walks away "filled with a lot of joy and a sense of the power of committing and doing something with your whole heart."

That is what the onetime junior dancers did and what any young person who lives for the artistry in dance can do, she said. After all, that's what happened to her.