Detroit has long history with Dance Theatre of Harlem

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

The Dance Theatre of Harlem shares a long relationship with Detroit, one that goes far beyond ballet performances every two years at the Detroit Opera House.

The multi-ethnic ballet company celebrates African-American culture with a repertoire that includes classical and neoclassical works, as well as innovative and bold new forms of artistic expression, commissioned to connect to contemporary audiences. This spring marks the company’s sixth visit to the Detroit Opera House.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem celebrates African-American culture with classical and neoclassical performances.

Begun in Harlem as a beacon of hope to neighborhood youth, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has been performing in the Motor City since the 1970s, initially at venues such as Music Hall. As part of its relationship with the city, the esteemed dance company conducted summer workshops to inspire and encourage Detroit youth in the performing arts.

Those workshops dissolved some years ago (though there is discussion about resurrecting them), but the 16-member company continues to visit Detroit every other year as part of a national tour. The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform Saturday and Sunday — two shows only — at the Detroit Opera House.

“Dance Theatre of Harlem has had a very special relationship with the city of Detroit for more than 40 years,” said Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the dance company founded by Harlem native Arthur Mitchell, who became an acclaimed principal dancer with the New York City Ballet in pre-Civil Rights America.

“Detroit is a city where our mission to transform lives through our art in performances, arts education and community engagement has been especially fulfilled,” she said. “Michigan Opera Theatre is the perfect partner as we work to bring a distinctive vision of classical ballet for the 21st century.”

That connection to Detroit and Michigan remains strong.

In January, all of the Detroit students who auditioned for spots in the dance company’s summer workshops in New York City made the cuts, an unusual accomplishment for students from any city. They’re being feted with a private event Friday to meet the dance company, enjoy dinner and ask questions.

“My school director came back to me and asked, ‘What is happening in Detroit? ’” said Anna Glass, executive director of the dance company, referring to the successful auditions. “I was pleasantly surprised. The quality and technique of these students was extraordinary. I had not been following (Detroit programs) so closely to know the quality of training or how talented the students would be.”

Workshops and education-outreach programs have long been part of the mission of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Its success in reaching youth is especially evident in one of the works, “Harlem On My Mind,” being performed this weekend.

Described as a love letter to Harlem, “Harlem On My Mind,” was created by an acclaimed African-American choreographer, Darrell Grand Moultrie, who grew up in Harlem and attended one of the dance company’s lectures and demonstrations in his youth. The work is also a love letter to jazz, with music by Wynton Marsalis, Count Basie and Chris Botti.

“He became inspired by that moment and decided he wanted to become a dancer himself,” said Glass, who is originally from Saginaw and spent some of her formative years in the Detroit suburbs. “What I love most is that it’s an example of why we do what we do. He was a young man sitting in the audience and he became inspired. Ultimately, that’s what we want.”

The program also features “Brahms Variations,” a neoclassical work where the court of Louis XIV meets Harlem swag; and “Change,” a work inspired by “women of color who have refashioned the world around them through vision, courage and endurance.

Each day’s program will also include a separate work. On Saturday, the dance company will perform the popular bravura showpiece “Le Corsaire Pas De Deux,” taken from a three-act ballet that tells a tale of love’s ultimate triumph despite betrayal and disaster. On Sunday, “This Bitter Earth,” a ballet by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, will be included. The ballet is set to music by Dinah Washington and Max Richter.

Since its founding in 1969, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has performed throughout the world, enjoyed three successful Broadway seasons, and garnered critical acclaim for a public television special, “Great Performances — Dance in America.” Earlier this century, the dance company enjoyed sold-out venues in China and performed in Greece before the 2004 Olympics. After a hiatus to reorganize, the company has returned as a smaller dance troupe, but with a more extensive touring schedule and a continued commitment to educational outreach.

“The trajectory of this company from its beginning as grassroots community outreach to an internationally acclaimed performing ensemble is remarkable,” Stephen Lord, the Michigan Opera Theatre’s principal conductor, said in statement. “They embody the ideal of the arts enriching the whole community.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

Dance Theatre of Harlem

7:30 p.m. Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sun.

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets $29-$100

(313) 237-7464

■An afterglow will be offered after Saturday's performance. Guests can meet company dancers and enjoy beverages, a strolling buffet and dancing. Tickets are $50 in advance or $60 at the door.