Dance Theatre of Harlem brings 50th anniversary celebration to Ogden

Traditional ballet? Forget everything you know about the classical art form.

Dance Theatre of Harlem is about to alter your perspective.

The famed professional dance troupe that was formed in 1969 — at the height of the Civil Rights movement — is making its first appearance in Ogden this weekend as part of its 50th anniversary celebration.

“I’m looking forward to visiting Ogden, where I’ve never been,” said DTH founding member and former principal dancer Virginia Johnson, who now serves as the group’s artistic director.

Dance Theatre of Harlem formed at a time when the white, aristocratic art form offered few opportunities for dancers of color.

“There’s certainly a sense of amazement on my part,” Johnson said of the fact the troupe is still around. “I was here in 1969, when Arthur Mitchell first dreamed of this, and I’ve spent a lot of my life carrying forward his vision. It’s fantastic we’ve endured over 50 years, where we can continue to carry the message of empowerment of the arts.”

Based in New York City, Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook. Mitchell had been the first black principal dancer at New York City Ballet, but was reportedly spurred by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to form his own dance company, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mitchell passed away last year.

Onstage Ogden, one of the presenters of the DTH performance, is celebrating an anniversary of its own this season, marking 70 years since it first began bringing professional classical music and dance to little old Ogden.

Johnson said the arts are often thought of as little more than the icing on the cake, but she said their contributions to society go much deeper than that. Take ballet, for example.

“Dance brings people together — communicating without language — so it speaks to everyone,” Johnson said.

Johnson says Mitchell’s original idea was to take a traditionally white, aristocratic art form and show the masses that it was for anyone and everyone.

“A lot of people think it was about creating a black ballet company, or a place where black dancers can perform,” she said. “And while it’s true that it was a place for these dancers, that wasn’t all it was. It was never meant to be segregated, but rather showing what ballet can be when it’s inclusive.”

Dance Theater of Harlem is a touring company — it has no home theater or season — so the majority of the performances are done on the road, around the world.

“We take it wherever we go,” Johnson said.

Johnson did say that wherever they perform, the one thing she’s noticed is that they’re able to alter an audience’s perceptions of what ballet is and can be.

“People come with a set of expectations,” she said. “And you can feel those expectations shift during the performance. If they think they’re coming to a traditional ballet performance, they think they’ll be bored, that they have to be informed and polite. But they’re surprised by what they experience.”

Saturday’s performance will be a series of four shorter ballets, according to Johnson. First up is “Orange,” an expressive piece by Stanton Welch, set to music by Vivaldi.

“It’s the most classical of the (four) works, but there’s also mystery and musicality in it,” Johnson said.

From “Orange,” the company transitions to “Change,” featuring spirituals “By and By” and “Don’t Let Nobody Turn Your Round.”

“‘Change’ is the kind of work Dance Theatre of Harlem does that is unlike any other ballet company’s offerings,” Johnson said. “It really draws on the African American experience, and the goal of this piece is to salute the strength of African American women.”

Johnson said the piece combines modern dance movement and classical dance movement into a “very strong and powerful” work.

Next up on the program is the dance “This Bitter Earth,” with music by Dinah Washington. Johnson calls the pas de deux “super divine — I melt every time I see it.”

The final piece on the program will be “Balamouk,” which Johnson says translates to “Ship of Fools.” She calls it a fun work to end the evening.

“When you’re asking an audience to invest their time — and that’s what a performance is, investing two hours of your evening — you want something meaty, but you also want to send them home happy,” she said.

Johnson said Dance Theatre of Harlem takes a completely different approach to ballet.

“The intention is different,” she said. “It’s not to show what ballet has been, or how excellent it’s been, but we are about defining the future of ballet.”

And even as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Johnson says Dance Theatre of Harlem is looking to the next 50 years and what ballet will become in the future.

“It’s ballet people can relate to, what it’s like to be alive now,” Johnson said. “I revere ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ — which is my favorite, but that’s a ballet that reflects a time that’s past. We want to reflect the time that we’re in, using the language of ballet.”

Johnson admits that there are times that ballet fans just don’t get what they’re trying to do.

“That’s par for the course,” she said. “When you take something and want to make it something more — especially with a traditionally classic art form — people are going to be resistant.”

Still, the artistic director believes that, particularly in today’s polarized society, an evening with Dance Theatre of Harlem can help to heal the growing divide in this country.

“I think that’s what art can do,” Johnson said. “One thing Dance Theatre of Harlem has done over 50 years is bring people together to have a shared common experience.

“And one that gives them delight.”

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