Dance Theatre of Harlem

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The first major ballet company to prioritize black dancers. It was founded by Arthur Mitchell, who was himself a principal dancer with New York City Ballet during the 1950s and 1960s and who, after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, felt impelled to fight for the position of black dancers in the world of ballet. In order to counter prejudice against them and to nurture their talent he founded a school in Harlem, which opened in 1969 with K. Shook as artistic adviser and after its first summer attracted over 400 pupils. Two years later Mitchell formed a company which gave its first performance on 8 Jan. 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, presenting three chamber ballets by Mitchell. Other works in its first season were by Balanchine and Robbins, and the company's unique energy and charm won them widespread acclaim. In the same year it gave its European debut at the Spoleto Festival and in 1981 it became the first black company to appear at Covent Garden. Mitchell subsequently nurtured many impressive dancers including the ballerina V. Johnson and male principals P. Russell, J. Cippola, and D. Williams. The company's repertoire not only boasted a wide range of 20th-century classics, including works by Nijinska, de Mille, and Balanchine but also a distinctive black classicism. Works by choreographers like Holder and Vincent Mantsoe drew on the company's African and African-American heritage while Mitchell and Franklin's 1984 staging of Giselle famously re-located the ballet to a Creole setting, drawing on issues of American race and class conflict. In 1992 the company toured to S. Africa and to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 1999 it gave the New York premiere of an expanded version of South African Suite (mus. various, chor. Mitchell and others). While suffering periodic financial stresses, Dance Theatre of Harlem retained its position as one of the world's leading companies, until it was forced to suspend operations in 2004. The school continues to function.

Subjects: Dance.

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