Dance Theatre of Harlem finds 'Higher Ground' at Motown Museum

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Walking around Detroit's beloved Motown Museum during a special tour Tuesday morning, Robert Garland, resident choreographer of the world renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem, couldn't help but think of Arthur Mitchell and the parallels to Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.

Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer at the New York City ballet, founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Like Gordy, Mitchell forged his own path.

They "did their own thing, didn't listen to naysayers and spent their own money to be honest," said Garland with a laugh.

Tuesday's museum visit was a fitting stop for Garland and three Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers given that in a matter of weeks, they'll be premiering Garland's new piece, "Higher Ground," set to five songs from one of Motown's biggest stars, Stevie Wonder.

Dance Theatre of Harlem performers Kamala Saara, left, Alexandra Hutchinson, middle, and Lindsey Donnell, right, perform a dance to the Stevie Wonder hit "Higher Ground" during a visit the Motown Museum, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The group will be performing at Michigan Opera Theatre in January.

"Higher Ground" — which takes its name from Wonder's 1973 song of the same title — was supposed to make its premiere in Detroit in March 2020, but then COVID-19 hit. Pushed back almost two years, the piece will finally premiere Jan. 22 and 23 at the Detroit Opera House before heading to New York next spring for City Center Dance Festival. Tickets are on sale now (see box for details).

Garland, who was a principal dancer for the company until 1999, actually flew into Detroit in early March 2020 and remembers it was his last stop before heading back to New York for lockdown. The parents of Dance Theatre of Harlem's Executive Director Anna Glass, who live in Detroit, picked them up at the airport.

"It was a very weird moment because it was her parents that I saw last when we had to go back to New York City," remembers Garland. 

"Higher Ground," which the New York Times has called a "marvel," is set to five Wonder songs from the 1970s, starting with 1971's "Look Around." It also includes "You Haven't Done Nothing," "Village Ghetto Land" and "Saturn" before finishing with "Higher Ground." Garland wrote the ballet for six dancers and it spans 26 minutes.

Dance Theatre of Harlem Resident Choreographer Robert Garland, photographs Studio A as he and members of the  group visit the Motown Museum, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The group will be performing at Michigan Opera Theatre in January.

Garland said the music of the 1970s "was ready to address absolutely everything that wasn't happening" after King's assassination.

"There were lots of questions," said Garland. "Stevie Wonder — and all the artists at that time — were instrumental in my early seven- and eight-year-old political imagination. Who can forget 'Living for the City'? I heard that as a kid and then I began to understand there's a world out there that he's telling me about."

Lindsey Donnell, a principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem who performed some of the new ballet at the museum Tuesday, said since they've been preparing "Higher Ground" before COVID, the extra time has allowed them "to really dive into the work and get more history."

"Everything we learn, just being here in Detroit, coming to the Motown Museum, it's really going to inform our performance in January," said Donnell, who is now in her 10th season with the theater.

Tuesday's visit comes as the Motown Museum is actually closed to the public for tours while it is in the midst of an extensive $55 million renovation and expansion plan. During the Dance Theatre's brief visit, they toured the entire museum before stopping to chat with reporters in Hitsville USA's iconic Studio A. They also planned to visit three arts schools in Detroit to lead master classes.

And even with the long pause before "Higher Ground" premieres, both Garland and Donnell said it's changed how they approach the piece and feel about its significance.

"It's so meaningful to represent a time and bring that forward into today, kind of with the same message, is really meaningful for our company," said Donnell.

Dance Theatre of Harlem

Jan. 22 and 23 at the Detroit Opera House

Tickets start at $29.

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