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Growing vision: Dance Theatre of Harlem keeps pushing in new directions

Fifty-one years.

That’s how long the Dance Theatre of Harlem has existed.

Artist Da’Von Doane is a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and will make a stop at Popejoy Hall on Wednesday, April 17. (Courtesy of Amitava Sarkar)

In the half-century, the company has grown its vision for ballet into the 21st century.

At the helm is Virginia Johnson, who as artistic director has helped push the company into new directions since its inception.

Johnson is also a founding member of the company, where she also danced for 27 years.

“I’ve performed in Albuquerque, like 5,000 years ago,” she quips in a recent interview. “After dancing, I came back to be artistic director. It’s a double blessing because I’ve had the opportunity to perform a vat and different repertoire. Being artistic director is a completely different perspective. It’s my job now to make sure that we’re bringing something new and unique to the stage.”

The company was started in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook.

Mitchell created the company in New York City, after making history in 1955 as the first black principal dancer at New York City Ballet. He was also the famed protégé of George Balanchine – the Russian-born dancer, choreographer and co-founder of the School of American Ballet.

Johnson says Mitchell started the company after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Since then, the company has grown in its repertoire and risen in the ranks in the dance world.

The 17-member, multiethnic company performs a forward-thinking repertoire, including treasured classics, neoclassical works by Balanchine and resident choreographer Robert Garland, as well as innovative contemporary works that use the language of ballet to celebrate African-American culture.

Johnson says the company will be performing four works at Popejoy Hall on Wednesday, April 17.

Johnson says the first piece is “Valse Fantasie” by Balanchine.

“There’s tulle skirts, dancers en pointe and some very tech aspects to ballet,” Johnson says. “It’s a great opener for the program.”

Following is Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth,” which has music from Dinah Washington.

And Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.” The show closes with a Garland piece.

“This piece is set to music of Aretha Franklin and James Brown,” she says. “It brings classical ballet and African social dancing together. The pieces represent our history as a ballet company, but also a look at how each person is a 21st century human being who dances.”