When the Dance Theatre of Harlem was created in 1969, its mission was straightforward: change the world through dance. Now, after an eight-year hiatus, the mission is evolving from its Civil Rights-era roots to embrace what ballet can mean today. And the evolution of this new company is beginning right here on the Vineyard. The three week-old new company has been in residence for the past two weeks at the Vineyard Arts Project and will perform this weekend.

“Dance Theatre of Harlem had a really important role to play from the beginning — it was really about changing people’s minds,” artistic director Virginia Johnson said one morning this week in between rehearsals at the Edgartown studio. “It was about changing perceptions about what classical ballet was and changing perceptions about who could do classical ballet.”

virginia johnson
Artistic Director Virginia Johnson: “It’s bone-crunching, soul-crunching work.” — Ray Ewing

Ms. Johnson was a principal dancer of the original company which was founded by Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, a protégé of George Balanchine and the first black dancer at the New York City Ballet. The company was created in response to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and became a pivotal part of New York city culture over the better part of its 40-year history. But in 2004, the company largely dissolved due to a $2.3 million debt. Only a small corps de ballet ensemble remained.

The new company has only been rehearsing in full compliment for a little over two weeks, and within the next eight weeks the dancers will learn a total of eight ballets for their upcoming tour. Two of those pieces are being developed on the Vineyard: Far But Close, choreographed by John Alleyne, and Gloria by Robert Garland. Both will be performed tonight, August 24, and tomorrow, August 25, at 7 p.m. at the Vineyard Arts Project, located at 315 Upper Main street in Edgartown.

Dance students from Rise Dance Studio in Vineyard Haven sat in on a DTH rehearsal. — Ray Ewing

The new company is smaller, 18 dancers rather than the original 44, and “made up of young dance artists who are on the rise”, said Ms. Johnson. Some of them are coming from the company’s ensemble, which did not go on hiatus and continued to tour around the country for the last four years. Others are new to the group and for them, “this is their first job and the excitement of achieving the goal of becoming a professional dancer is really inspiring to them.”

The dancers are young, but up to the challenge of learning eight new ballets by October, said ballet master and former DTH dancer Keith Saunders. “We’re really putting a tremendous amount of responsibility on the dancers to step up to this work,” he said.

In addition to the two Vineyard pieces being performed, other works in development include a duet by Helen Pickett, a piece by Donald Byrd, an adaptation on point of Alvin Ailey’s Lark Ascending, a pas de deux from Black Swan, and George Balanchine’s Agon.

keith saunders
Ballet master and former DTH dancer Keith Saunders. — Ray Ewing

“What we’re doing now is taking [the ensemble] to the next level,” Mr. Saunders said. “We’re stressing to them that this is in a sense a different playing field. We are going to be compared to the previous Dance Theatre of Harlem company, to first-rate companies all over the world. It’s another leap they have yet to make in their development.”

On Monday morning the dancers shared their inspiration and insights with students from Rise Dance studio in Vineyard Haven. The Rise dancers sat in on rehearsal, shaking off their dazed summer awe and watching as the DTH dancers were encouraged to move through space, open their eyes and see beyond their reflections in the mirrors.

After class, DTH dancers from Texas, California, New York, Maine, Washington, Louisiana, Maryland and Australia encouraged the Rise students to balance academic life, personal time and dance.

“You have to strengthen the brain as much as you strengthen your other muscles, the mind is forever,” one dancer said, adding that a dancer’s career can be short-lived. “For me, education is still of primary importance.”

DTH dancers are readying themselves for a fall tour. — Ray Ewing

Another dancer said that having a social life is just as essential as taking another class in a studio.

“You have something that supplements your work,” he said. “It’s important to have interactions with each other, go see a movie, go out on dates, all of those experiences and see other forms of art. It gets into your muscles and it breathes.”

On Monday morning choreographer John Alleyne rehearsed his quartet Far But Close, a piece Ms. Johnson referred to as “a spoken word piece with music and dance, or it’s a dance with spoken word and music. It’s bringing all of these things together. It’s a love story talking about contemporary people in Harlem.”

In another studio, DTH’s resident choreographer Robert Garland worked with 14 dancers on Gloria, which will become one of the company’s signature works. “It is based in the neoclassic but it’s also skirting,” Ms. Johnson said. “What do you call Robert’s style?” she asked Mr. Saunders. “It’s a great term.”

Fifth position. — Ray Ewing

“Post-modern urban neoclassicism,” he responded. Mr. Saunders added that it has been “fascinating” to watch Mr. Garland develop the ballet. “Robert is very much forward-looking and forward-moving in his work as an artist and at the same time pays homage and tribute to myriad influences in the work,” he said, naming famed choreographers, dancers and artists such as George Balanchine, Lester Horton, Martha Graham and Michael Jackson.

Ms. Johnson said the dancer’s time at the Vineyard Arts Project has freed them to become more vulnerable.

Dancers encouraged the students to balance their lives with non-dance interests. — Ray Ewing

“The thing is, it’s very hard work — it’s bone-crunching work, it’s soulcrunching work,” she said. “The choreographers are exposing their souls and the dancers . . . are exposing their limitations, their strengths. There is a vulnerability to this process of making new work. Having such a wonderful comfort and beauty in your surroundings makes you able to expose more.”

After the Vineyard performances, the company heads back to New York city to continue rehearsing for the fall tour. Mr. Saunders said the company is ready to prove themselves.

“Our goal and sensibility is to be the best, and work at the highest possible levels,” he said. “This is not the Dance Theatre of Harlem of the 20th century . . . we are all here to make a Dance Theatre of Harlem of the 21st century. It’s not the company that Virginia joined in 1969, it’s not the company I joined in 1975. It must be of its time and place . . that’s our charge.”


Dance Theatre of Harlem performs tonight and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Vineyard Arts Project in Edgartown. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and available at vineyardartsproject.org.