George Balanchine dismissed some audience complaints about the pas de deux from his 1957 ballet “Agon,” a plotless dance for two, set to the music of Igor Stravinsky performed by Diana Adam and Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell was being tested in his first year as a Principal Dancer, having become the first African American dancer with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet just two years earlier. Moira Shearer, red-headed star of the iconic film “The Red Shoes” and one of the Royal Ballet’s reigning ballerinas of the era wrote on her visit to New York, “The stage picture formed by those two dancers – he in white shirt and black tights, Diana Adams with white skin and black hair also in black and white – is something I shall never forget.” Added Lincoln Kirstein, the company’s General Director and Impresario, “The grand pas de deux, one of Balanchine’s most personal constructions, was designed for a white girl and a black boy. When it was shown in Moscow in 1962 attention was drawn to an imagined servility and pathos as a metaphor of inequality in American society.”
Representation is important. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s charisma and rhetoric that ignited a movement and gave voice to a struggle; the empowering words of his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech reignited a nation hungry for social change. Yes We Can!” was not only Barack Obama’s winning 2008 campaign slogan, but the evocation of a diverse and complete representation by his section. The real power of Dr. King and Barack Obama is that they are pioneers: their work continues to inspire others to expand the possibilities of conceived limitations in the name of diversity.
With Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, the civil rights movement was left with a void of this im- portant and critical representation. Did Arthur Mitchell have any other choice under the circumstances but to share his talent with the movement and start a ballet company of African American and other racially diverse artists? Dance Theatre of Harlem was set up so that dancers like Raven Wilkinson of the Ballet Russes, one of the earliest successful African American ballerinas, did not have to “pass” in the 1950s to perform the Waltz from “Les Sylphide,” or be re-routed on certain cities for fear of the safety of both her and the company. Dance Theatre of Harlem would provide an outlet for expression for ballet artists of color who had no other place to share their voice until 2004, when the company went on hiatus as it reassessed it assets and, perhaps on a deeper level, its niche in the dance community and the audience it was representing.
As dancers, we are taught to always find our light. Virginia Johnson, the current Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, seems to do just that. The desk in her Harlem office sits horizon- tally to giant windows overlooking a tree-lined street, the sunlight splashing in and catching her cheekbones and lighting up her eyes. The company leaves for Tel Aviv later that day, yet she seems relaxed. She has an ease about her, as if there is a soft breeze when she talks. Maybe that’s the part of being a ballerina that you get to keep when you stop dancing.
She has brought this new light to Dance Theatre of Harlem, reviving this sleeping beauty and pushing it forward into the 21st century. She has a strong message, good marketing, and an artistic plan for the future – She’s doing everything right. Dance Theatre of Harlem is in the midst of a seemingly successful comeback; The New York Times review of their recent Lincoln Center season opened with, “After nearly 10 years on hiatus, Dance Theater of Harlem is back.”
A founding member of the company and one of its reigning principal dancers for 28 years, Johnson excelled in the classical repertory like “Swan Lake” and “Creole Giselle,” as well as neoclassical works by George Balanchine and others. After Johnson retired, she founded Pointe Magazine, where she served as the Editor in Chief until 2009. When she was approached by Arthur Mitchell, her artistic mentor for her entire performance career, about taking over as Artistic Director of the company, how could she refuse? Though the most logical successor to Mitchell’s legacy, we are just now starting to see Johnson’s artistic vision and she builds on this strong foundation of excellence – and the future looks bright.
PHIL CHAN: What was your first interaction with the image of the ballerina?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: My first ballet teacher, Therrell Smith, a young African American woman in Washington D.C. who fell in love with ballet, and she really wanted to be a ballet dancer. Fortunately her father was a doctor, so they were a family of means. She couldn’t find anywhere to be trained in Washington, which was still a very segregated city up through the 1950s. So she took herself off to Paris, studied with Matilda Kshesinskaya [Prima Ballerina of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre at the turn of the last century], and got herself some training. She came back to Washington and wanted to start her own school. Therrell was a good friend of my mother, so mom wanted to support her friend and sent her little daughters off to Therrell’s school while she went to do the grocery shopping.
That’s how I got started. My sister fell in love with it right away. I was really bad at it, I really was! The other kids would laugh at me because I couldn’t do all the steps. But I really loved it, so I stuck with it. Every Saturday. Then when I was thirteen, I heard that the Washington School of Ballet was giving away scholarships so I went and auditioned. This goes back to the segregated Washington thing: the Washington School of Ballet was a white school across town. But I convinced my mom to let me go auditions, and Mary Day [The Director of the School] looked at me and said, “Well, I’m going to invite you to be a part of my school.” She hadn’t had very many of us in her school.
So there was that whole crossing boundaries thing, but the idea of this artform, it’s so magnificent, and here is somebody who has the potential to do it.
PHIL CHAN: When did you realize that your race was something you had to over- come? When did you intersect with that reality?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: I think that my personality is one that is a bit obliviously. Mary Day telling me I wouldn’t have a career because I was black was an intel- lectual concept. It wasn’t someone that I actually owned. I didn’t actually audition for any companies at that point, so nobody ever told me, no, you’re not going to do this. The Bolshoi [Ballet] came to Washington and auditioned thousands of kids for their ballet program. I auditioned and I didn’t get it,
but I didn’t think it was because I am black but because I was too tall. It wasn’t about race being an issue. Part of that also was my upbringing, we were certainly middle class. Washington was a very segregated city, we had these parallel societies that happened. We were always in a very mixed group; we went to the Unitarian church (high mixed, it was not segregated one way or the other). The world I really experiences was not one that was black or white, and I think that that is the exception. It wasn’t a big issue for me, though certainly my father was the first African American to attend the US Naval Academy in Anapolis, and he was hazed out. He has to resign because they would not accept a black person in. I knew certainly that the race issue has been a part of my conscious- ness, but no so much the biggest obstacle I had to overcome. My biggest obstacle was that I didn’t have high enough extension.or enough pirouettes! I wasn’t thinking that the reason somebody wasn’t buying me was because I had the wrong color skin.
PHIL CHAN: Arthur Mitchell joins New York City Ballet in 1955, and is shocking audiences by dancing with white female part- ners, Allegra Kent in “Agon” for example.Dr. King was assassinated in ‘68, the Civil Rights Act in ‘68, and Arthur Mitchell retires from New York City Ballet and forms Dance Theatre of Harlem in ‘69. What was that energy like? What was it being an artist and literally embodying what was going on in this country? It seemed like a time where the Civil Rights movement was being reflected on stage as well as off.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: It was also during Vietnam, it was a very tense time in this country and we were making this incredibly beautiful and powerful statement by stepping into this art form and saying we can do this just about as well as anybody else can. There was all sorts of resistance around that. We would go to a city, and they thought they were hiring the Harlem Globetrotters. We’d come out in our tutus and pointe shoes and people would be like, we’ll this isn’t what I thought it was going to be, and I’m not sure I’m going to like this! Those were the same people that, by the end, you could see them standing up and cheering. It was something that was so surprising to them; it was not what they had expected. It wasn’t what they thought we could do, or what they thought the art form was like. They saw the art form as “fancy-dancey” – it wasn’t something that could represent something real, or what they were experiencing in their lives. People got right away this expression of freedom through what we did as Dance Theatre of Harlem.
PHIL CHAN: Was it the repertory, the dancers, or did race play a huge part in this?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: It was all of it. In the very beginning there was no money – Arthur Mitchell did the choreography. Except George Balanchine, he was our Godfather, he gave us “Concerto Barocco” and “Agon” right from the start. He said, they can’t really dance this yet, but they’ll learn how to dance by doing it. So we had those works. We did works that were classically or neoclassically oriented, because we wanted to show that
we fit into this artform. Arthur Mitchell did a ballet called “Rythamtron” It had a very ethnic quality: the priestess went all around the stage en pointe, it was a very powerful sound. There was an “African” quality to it, but we were en pointe. So there was this real fusion of what you expect, “Oogabooga” drum beats but they’re en pointe, and they’re doing lifts and pirouettes. There was this fusion of worlds that really made people get what this was about.
PHIL CHAN: So you were claiming the pointe shoe as something beyond the ethereal white sylph – now it’s a tool for expression.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: A tool for expression! Exactly! That’s what Dance Theatre of Harlem has always been about: it’s a tool. It doesn’t belong in that one little corner and is only about that group of people. It can be about anybody. Our repertory did grow over the years. We brought in the story ballets, classical works, of course we did “Swan Lake,” though “Creole Giselle” came much later. But it was about helping people understand that this was a language that could help many people say many things.
PHIL CHAN: Another company around this same time was making race much more of
a focus – the Ailey company. Was there a dialogue between the two companies? Any rivalries?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: There was tre- mendous rivalry between Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey, I think just personally. I think they were both black men trying the make their way in the world, and they had a different way of doing it. There was that competition in the 70s and 80s. We were in divergent paths, but since we were both black companies, people tried to lump us together. There was always the desire to distinguish between the two. The Ailey company is magnificent, I would never say anything like we are better or worse. We’re just different. It’s about saying something different, and that is what art is for: its not one statement. It’s really important to know what your message is, and present it in the most powerful way. The thing that galls me still is that people have the tendency with all minorities, well, that’s what “your” people say, that’s who YOU are. How can you tell me who I am? Let me SHOW you who I am. It’s irksome to always be lumped together with Ailey because we are so distinct. I wish people would look at the power of our work and not the color of our skin.
PHIL CHAN: Let’s flash forward: you are ending your tenure as the founder of Pointe Magazine. You are approached again by Dance Theatre of Harlem. What was the state of the company at that point?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: In 2004, the company closed, for financial reasons. It was necessary to temporarily close down the touring company, and it was always the plan for that to be temporary. That was 2004,
and now this is 2009. It was much longer than anyone had thought. The organization was at another turning point: it either needed to move forwarder cease to be. It had found that not having the visibility of a touring company made an impact on our school, even though the school and our arts education programs continued at that time. You know how the world goes, it keeps on marching, and if you don’t make a sound, it’ll march right over you.
So DTH was in a tenuous situation and needed to change. Arthur Mitchell decided to step down and he asked me to step in the role of Artistic Director. He told me, “Your role is to bring back the company.” DTH would become nothing without it. That was a big one. I had left Pointe at that point, and was really beginning to look at blacks in ballet, and how we could bring the students [of color] studying ballet to a higher number so that we could have more blacks on the stage. Because as you know too in the dance world, you have 50 people in the room and maybe one of them is of the material you would hire. It’s very hard for the general public to understand how rigorous the standards are for this artform.
PHIL CHAN: It seems directors are always looking for something very special. Every- one has to be very, very special. And you have to build a company out of very, very special dancers.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: And not all dancers are there yet! It takes so many qualities and characteristic and training to get someone into that place. So when Arthur Mitchell called me, I had to say yes. Because first of all, you never say no to Arthur Mitchell. And second, because this place gave me the life I dreamed of. The least I could do would be to give that to somebody else. I really believe in this artform, and the place that Dance The- atre of Harlem has in this artform to make it vibrant in contemporary times. People use that word “relevant,” and it’s so…demeaning. I think that you want to have an understanding of what it means to be uplifted. That takes many forms.
PHIL CHAN: Beyond just relevancy?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: I think that people see ballet as uplifting. A magnificent performance can change your life. The elements of that performance, we are in a test tube, we are developing it. We’re creating that new future. I saw coming back here as a way to test that assumption with real bodies and real time.
PHIL CHAN: So here we are now, 2013, we have a Black man in the White House…
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: A beleaguered Black man! I think he’s magnificent and they’re just not letting him do what he can do!
PHIL CHAN: The discussion of race has changed dramatically in some ways and not at all in others. Compared to the conversations happening when you were a pioneer in the company, what are the conversations happening now? How are you addressing race in a “post-racial” America with a company that has such strong roots in an African American tradition?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: I don’t think it’s a post-racial country. The good thing about it is we are talking race now in ways that we never did before. We are not, not seeing race, but we are not avoiding it. Where we are right now still isn’t good enough. I think it’s encouraging that Artistic Directors are calling me up asking me for dancers of color. That’s a big step! I reply, we’re training them for us, but if we have any left over…
One of the things that is holding us back that we need to look at again, is that for such a long time we denied African American culture, and denied the humanity of a whole group of people. We then went overboard and said, African American culture is THIS! And you have to be part of THAT! – Which again is negating the individual. We do
this with all minorities. It’s a way of being uncomfortable about it, so you pigeonhole people.
What I see DTH being able to do it celebrate difference at the same time we celebrate commonality. That’s how we become a post-racial nation, when we are able to recognize that we all put on our pants the same way, we all the same fears, allergies. We may have different cultures, but at the base we are human beings, and we share so many things that are similar, and we can enrich ourselves with the things that are different. At the base, we are really the same, and that’s how Dance Theatre of Harlem works. Western Ballet and African Dance, like Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space.” It’s very intense, very moving, it’s very much pointe shoe technique to tell a story.
PHIL CHAN: Let’s be specific about audience engagement: what has Dance Theatre of Harlem done during your tenure that brings in new audiences, traditionally non-ballet audiences and donors into the community, and vice versa?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: A bunch of ways. We have our arts education programs that go into the public schools where we have residencies that use ballets as tools for learning. One of our programs is called Positive Com- munity where children and their parents learn dance making as a way to solve problems.
PHIL CHAN: It uses the arts to help people make connections and communicate.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: Exactly. That’s arts education. We have a “Firebird” curriculum. Traditional arts education. You can’t just do new things, you need to do things that are tried and true.
When we were developing the new repertory for DTH, we did Thursdays at DTH which were studio showings that were free to the community, an hour and a half where we would show a little bit of the choreography, dancers would get to talk about it, the audience would get to ask questions. They would ask the choreographers, “Why did you make that choice, what am I supposed to be looking at?” And that was a very exciting exchange, and it’s something that continues even now. We have a desire to put that online but the technology has eluded us so far.
We’re working on it.
When we’re on tour, one thing that every presenter says about us is that they love when Dance Theatre of Harlem comes because they get their traditional ballet audience, then they get an audience that they have never seen before. They are sitting in the theater together, having a join experience. Whether they talk to each other, I don’t know, but it’s certainly mixing their communities.
PHIL CHAN: So who are these people and what makes Dance Theatre of Harlem get these people to come out?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: The African American community has a lot of pride about Dance Theatre of Harlem. The name – we are 44 years old – the idea of a pioneering company under Arthur Mitchell’s leadership that broke down barriers is a point of pride. They know its a performance where they are going to come to and see themselves on stage, and they’re going to see something that is going to make the proud. So when we are places like Indianapolis or Fresno, we get a huge audience of people, lots of young people, lots of little children in the audience saying, wow, this is something
that’s possible for me. Or, this is something I didn’t know existed. And if that exists, may- be something else exists. It’s opening those minds. We do special outreach as we go city to city with the Links, the AKAs, the Deltas black fraternities and sororities – to get the word out about Dance Theatre of Harlem. The arts education programs we do on tour do that same thing. We invite the schools in to come to see what dancing is, the kids are sometimes given discounts to come in the evening, it depends on the presenter. There is a way of continuing to plant seeds across the country.
PHIL CHAN: Where do you see the company going in the next five years?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: We came back as a company of 18 dancers, which is the right size for touring. It’s very scary touring with 18 dancers because of the rep that I brought in might be a bit too big, so lets knock on wood here. I would like the company to grow slightly larger so that we can accommodate that.
The other things I want to do is to continue down the oath that we are doing the classics, we are doing the masterworks of Balanchine, we are inviting Nacho Duato and William Forsythe, that we do the work that the ballet world resonates with. The meat and bone for our dancers and our audience.
It’s an aesthetic that is powerful. But I also want to, what is that word – unfreeze – I haven’t figured out the word yet. This is on top of the African American works that will be a part of our regular annual theme. This year we are doing a piece on the Harlem Renaissance which I think will be really successful. Works that are physically challenging, present a new kind of beauty. When you think about ballet, beauty is a big part of that, but what is that beauty? We know the beauty of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the symmetry and form and order. What is the beauty that speaks to the 21st century? That idea of unfreezing – I think we need to be a little bit of a laboratory. I think that we need to be able to develop work and test its resonance in ways that don’t put us $75,000 down the tube. The production of work is impossible.
PHIL CHAN: It’s hard these days to experiment. You have to have such a strong plan before you can get any funding, and once you have it, there is no room for error in the execution of the work.
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: And you go all the way down that road and it doesn’t work. I think about jazz a lot. I think that jazz is a good model, in the sense a jazz musician understands the structure of the work being played. And then they play inside the work. It’s not as if there are no rules. That’s high level of understanding for the artist. We learn the form, and we play inside the form, but we don’t know how to play WITH the form. Improvisation is a part of it. It’s a way of looking at art being individual expression that I want to solve within this universe of ballet, because I think that that is something that an audience will perceive and be able to connect to. How many people do you get saying, “Well, I don’t understand dance.” How do we get them to understand? They go to jazz. They get jazz. You go to classical music, which is very easy to understand be- cause the rules are right there on the surface. It’s thrilling because you can follow it.
So how do we make that with ballet? It’s not with [Marius] Petipa [choreographer of “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and many
other great classical works of the 1800s]. You can follow Petipa very easily. You’ve got to be able to follow ballet as it moves forward. The next few years are going to be finding that work, finding that spring. Well do some of it here at the Open Thursdays, I haven’t figured out how to do it in a production way, where we are able to have the magic of the theatre, with lights and staging. It’s more complicated, but there’s got to be a way.
PHIL CHAN: I want to finish our chat with education. You touched on this before, but why is it important for an audience to say, “I can see me on stage.” Why is representation important?
VIRGINIA JOHNSON: Intellectually you say, well what’s the big deal? I experienced it personally, so completely amazing, and I can still feel it: the Martha Graham company came to Washington, I must have been ten or eleven, and I’m sitting in the audience, thinking, oh, this is nice. And Mary Hinkson came on stage. And I sat up in my seat. Now Martha Graham – it’s MODERN dance – they’re barefoot! I’m a bunhead! But she comes on stage, and she is the most beau- tiful…exquisite embodiment of dance I had ever seen in my entire life; it was because
it was the only black person I saw on the stage. It was the most incredible thing. It’s a visceral thing, it’s not an intellectual thing. You identify with the person is there: if they can do it, I can do it. It’s seems so simplistic it seems so stupid, in reality anyone can do anything. But we’re all very insecure and hesitant about making our way in the world. You need that reinforcement. You need to know when people are saying something is not possible to know that someone has done it – that’s why we revere pioneers. The first one who did this or the first one who did that
– it means others can follow. It’s very hard, but others can follow.