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The Art and Soul of Dance Theatre of Harlem: A Conversation with Virginia Johnson

More than 50 years ago, in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, New York City Ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell found himself pondering what he, as an artist, could do to help change the American status quo when it came to racial equity. Mitchell's answer: create a ballet program in his home neighborhood of Harlem, with Karel Shook.

What started as a school for Harlem youngsters expanded over the years to include one of America's premier touring ballet companies, Dance Theatre of Harlem.

"Arthur Mitchell wanted to show what ballet could be. He wanted to create an opportunity for people to understand that ballet is an artform that belongs to us all."--Virginia Johnson

Prima Ballerina Virginia Johnson was an original DTH company member. About 15 years ago, Mitchell tapped her to take over as the company's artistic director, to help revive its finances and regain its place as an acclaimed performance troupe. Virginia Johnson talked to Vivian and Marcie about the company's history, its artistic and social missions, and her plans to hand over artistic leadership to choreographer Robert Garland.

Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson pictured solo (L), and posing with former Company Artist Anthony Santos and Company Artist Amanda Smith (R).



Founding member and former principal dancer, Virginia Johnson, was appointed Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem by Arthur Mitchell in 2010. Born in Washington, DC, she graduated from the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet and briefly attended New York University as a University Scholar before joining DTH in 1969. Universally recognized as one of the great ballerinas of her generation she was cast in classical, neoclassical and contemporary works but is perhaps best known for her performances in the ballets Giselle, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend, each of which were videotaped for broadcast. While still performing, Johnson ventured into choreography but her interest in journalism led her to Fordham University where she is pursuing a degree in communications. After retiring from performing, an Independent Artist Grant from The Field led to an exploration of arts presenting. At the School of Visual Arts Johnson studied serigraphy, filmmaking and television production before the opportunity to create POINTE magazine presented itself. She was founding editor-in-chief of that magazine from 2000-2009. Her honors include a Young Achiever Award from the National Council of Women, Outstanding Young Woman of America, the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award, the Washington Performing Arts Society’s 2008-2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award and honorary doctorates from Cornish College

of the Arts, Swarthmore and Juilliard. She is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and The Society, Inc. In February2016 she was honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White house for her contribution to the field of dance. In 2018 Johnson held the Brackett Visiting Artist Chair at the University of Oklahoma and is the recipient of the Mary Day Award from the Washington Ballet and the 2019 CORPS de Ballet International Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020 she was presented with a medal of honor from the Actor’s Fund. She serves on the Advisory Board of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, and Dance/NYC and serves on the Board of Works & Process. Johnson will pass artistic leadership of DTH to Robert Garland in July, 2023.

You can learn more about Virginia and the legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem here




Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips.


And I'm Marcie Sillman.


And this


Is DoubleXposure <laugh>


DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plum the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


Today, a special conversation with Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director, Virginia Johnson.

Hello, I'm Marcie Sillman.


Hello, I'm Vivian Phillips, and this is a special edition of DoubleXposure. We're live at Seattle's historic Paramount Theatre, and we're with a historic figure in the American dance world, the Artistic Director of the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem, Virginia Johnson. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us, and I just have to say, it's always so great to see you.


Oh, Vivian, it's always, always great to see you as well, and wonderful to meet you, Marcie.


I'm very honored. And you're here in Seattle because the company is performing a new work among other things, and we're gonna talk about that new work a little bit later. But for listeners who might not for some reason know what the Dance Theatre of Harlem is, uh, we wanted to take some time for you to talk about the company because you were one of the founding members, so you were there present at the creation, as they say.


Thank you. So, yes, uh, Dance Theater of Harlem is actually going to celebrate its 54th anniversary in February of, um, uh, 2023. Uh, so was I there? No.


Oh, you must have been in someone's arms.


I was in someone’s arms, Yes. Dance Theatre of Harlem of Harlem was founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, and Arthur Mitchell was the first African American to be a permanent member of a ballet company, the New York City Ballet. And he had a big career. He was a star of the ballet stage on Broadway. He made some films, So he was a, a quite a visionary figure. But, you know, uh, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, he actually stopped and had to say, What can I do? How can I do what Dr. King was doing? I’m a ballet dancer? How can a ballet dancer change the world? Well, he looked around his home community of Harlem, and he saw a lot of despair. The schools were terrible, the housing was terrible. The young people didn't have a future. And he said to himself, I'm gonna teach them a classical art form.


I'm gonna teach some ballet, because studying ballets are gonna learn life skills that are going to give them a chance to change their lives. Now, everybody thought he was crazy. What are you doing? What are you taking all these kids ballet? They don't do, They can't understand it. But Arthur Mitchell had 400 kids within months of starting Dance Theatre of Harlem, and they loved it, and they loved the focus, and they loved the discipline, and they understood that by studying ballet, you get, you get this thing that you go, I know if I put myself into it, I'm gonna get something back. And you study over time, you feel yourself getting more powerful and more in control. So it was really very, very important. It was changing people's lives. Literally, he looked at these young kids with stars in their eyes, and he said, Well, they need some role models.


They need something to aspire to. Uh, and so he created the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company, but he also created Dance Theatre of Harlem Company to dispel the myth that classical ballet belonged to white people. That it was just reflective of white culture, European culture. And so he wanted to show what ballet could be if it was inclusive. He wanted to give, create an opportunity for people to understand that ballet's an art form that belongs to us all. And it can say many things. It doesn't just have to be about princesses and frogs. It can be actually about the lives that we're living. And so that's the beginning of Dance Theater of Harlem.


You know, I think one of the greatest honors of my life besides knowing you, was the opportunity to meet Arthur Mitchell and get to know him. He was quite a charismatic and dynamic figure. I know that you spent time with the company early on. What was it like in those early days with the dynamic Arthur Mitchell?


Mm. So, uh, you have to realize that when the company was founded, every single one of those people at Dance Theatre of Harlem had been said, have been told You don't belong in this place. You don't belong in this art form. You can't do it. Each one of us been told no. And so here, Arthur Mitchell gave us a chance to do this thing that we loved and knew was who we were. Uh, and so we were, we were ready. We were feeling like we were crusaders. Now we're looking at this point in time that we had to prove that we were ready. And Arthur Mitchell was a tough task master, and it was hard. Nothing was ever right and nothing was ever good enough. And you had to keep pushing. But, you know, we did it because we believed in what was going on. And there was a lot of gratitude in, in having the experience of an audience that came to see you fail, standing up and cheer, you know, at the end. So it, it was a, it was a lot of mixed feelings.


And what kind of work were you performing back then?


So, um, in the beginning, uh, Dance Theatre of Harlem was, uh, you know, Arthur Mitchell started with his own money. There was no money to create, to hire a choreographer. So Arthur Mitchell actually did a lot of the choreography, but because Arthur Mitchell had been a member of New York City Ballet, and George Balanchine was the, the Artistic Director of that company. He was our fairy godmother, and he gave us his best works. We cut our teeth on Agon, the work that George Balanchine created on Arthur Mitchell. We did Concert Barocco, we did Allegra Brant, We learned those works, the great works of George Balanchine as our training wheels to get started as a company.


That's quite some training wheels. Those are not necessarily beginning dances. I'm curious how that repertoire and Arthur Mitchell's real drive to, to reflect Black culture, Black heritage, how they merged together, how the repertoire changed or, or expanded, You know, what, what did happen?


So, um, right from the start, you know, we did have the great works of George Balanchine. We did have works that Arthur Mitchell choreograph, but Arthur Mitchell looked around to his friends, his, his, um, peers, Louis Johnson, uh, Billy Wilson, uh, Talley Beattie. And he also brought them into Choreograph Works for Dance Theatre of Harlem, because it was about creating the idea that ballet was more than Balanchine ballet could be many things. You have these bodies that are trained in this classical art firm. What can they do given these different challenges?


Anything I would say.


And I think you've spoken to this a bit, but can you share your thoughts on what the role of the Dance Theatre of Harlem is and the overall ballet ecosystem today, and why it's important that the company exists 54 years later and going into the future?


Ah, thank you, Vivian. That's a, that's a really tough question, but it's an important one because when Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem, he was trying to say, This is what ballet might mean. Ballet's a very conservative art form that is, has a glorious past and has spent much of its time validating its present by its past. And what Arthur Mitchell wanted to create in people's minds was an expectation of ballet being something that was inclusive and relevant and current, as well as being glorious and beautiful from the past. That it was much more than people thought it was, and to stretch their minds. And that's why Dance Theatre of Harlem exists.


Right on <laugh>. I love that. Well, we know that the going hasn't always been easy for Dance Theatre of Harlem. And at one point in time, the company, uh, suspended for a time. How did you get tapped to revive the company and to lead it through for the last decade or or so? It's about a decade. A little, a little bit more. Yeah, like 2011, something like that.


2010, January One, 2010 was the day I came back as Artistic Director of Dance Theater Harlem. I had retired from the company in ‘97. I'd gone on and done different things. I picked up the phone one morning and there's Arthur Mitchell on the other end of the line. And he says, You know, I'm thinking of stepping down. The organization had gone through a very difficult period from 2004 to 2009, which is when he, he called me. The company was put on hiatus because we were gonna go out of business. And what was important to Arthur Mitchell, and I think he wanted Dance Theatre of Harlem to survive, the school was an important part of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and our community engagement as essential part of dance theater problem. So rather than lose everything, he said, We'll, we'll put the company on hold for a little bit. Well, that was going on and on, on and on. So he was, he said, You know, I'm gonna step down. We need to have a future for this organization, and I want you to come in and be Artistic Director, and your job is to bring the company back.


A little task, a little task.


Just a little something. Well, you know, but I wanna ask, what was some of the biggest challenges that you faced during that time of reviving the company?


Um, yeah. It, it was, uh, you know, we had a lot of support. I think the people, I think a lot of people understood there, there was a need for Dance Theatre of Harlem in the world, and we've had a lot of foundational support. So when the thought was, Okay, Arthur Mitchell will step down, we'll bring in new Artistic Director, and we'll put the organization in a place that it can sustain the expense of a touring company. Because we are a touring company. We are not a resident company. We, our message is to go out into the world and do this work. So, um, we spent two years very much looking at what was sustainable, and that word sustainable is key. And this is of course, right after 2008, uh, recession. So things were very tight. And so, you know, there were, we had many consultants and many conversations.


Uh, and then the, the decision was made that the right size for the new Dance Theatre of Harlem Company was 18 dancers In 2004, it had been 46 dancers. In 2004, we had two semi-trailers with a lovely sprung floor and theater cases and costumes and lighting as well. We pack our costumes and we put them in a suitcase and it goes underneath the plane. So it's a, a completely different, completely different set of circumstances that we're working with. But we are still Dance Theatre of Harlem, and we still have the imperative to be Dance Theatre of Harlem.


Correct me if I'm wrong, but you just got a major gift from Mackenzie Scott. How would that affect the operations as you have been doing them since you came in?


So, we are very grateful for, to Mackenzie Scott for that, that beautiful gift. Um, it has given us a kindness ability that we have never had. You know, having been with a company for almost 30 years as a dancer, you can't see my hand going up and down. But life was, you know, feast and famine. Yeah. Feast and famine. And so now with this gift, we're able to actually think about, um, how to sustain this organization, how to have this - we don't have an endowment. You know, we can, we're not putting this money into an endowment, but it's there to help us figure out how do we make sure that we're here today, we're building tomorrow, and we'll be here for the next 54 years, years. And that's a great gift.


I love that.


Our conversation with Virginia Johnson continues after this.


Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks. Many thanks.


And this year we welcome our sponsor, LANGSTON, Cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.


So you all are here and you're going to be performing a very special piece, Sounds of Hazel. Before you tell us about the piece itself and a little bit about Hazel Scott, can you talk about the commissioning of this piece? Because I know it was a, a it was a, a collaborative commission.


Absolutely. Absolutely. Um, and I'm, I'm grateful to STG for being a Commissioner of the Sounds of Hazel. Um, it was 2020 and, um, Adam Clayton Powell II, who is Hazel Scott's son, sits on the board of the Washington Performing Arts, which has been a presenter of Dance Theatre of Harlem of Harlem since 1972. So, I get a call from, um, Jenny Bellfield, the Executive Director to say, uh, 2020 is a centenary of, of Hazel Scott's birth. Do you wanna do a ballet? Can we collaborate on a ballet about Hazel Scott? And you know what, I am mortified. I didn't know who Hazel Scott was. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I had no idea. But there's a magnificent biography by Karen Shelton. And I started reading about this woman, about this woman. She was a, she was a prodigy. She went to Julliard at age eight. She was able, she was a classical pianist who could understand what was going on.


But you know, the thing, the link between Hazel Scott and Dance Theater of Harlem, we are classical artists who bridge worlds, and she was a classical artist who, whose success was based on her ability to bring worlds together. Wow. So it's just like, of course we're doing a world ballet about Hazel Scott. It is a perfect fit, but it also made me feel, uh, a certain level of anger that this woman's history was not known, and that she needed to be known by this generation of people who, whether they're theater growers or ballet lovers, and they also need to be known by the next generation of artists who can be inspired by her story.


So how does her story then get played out in this ballet? You know, you've talked about, I didn't realize that she went to Juilliard at eight. Yes. I knew that she went to Julliard. But she was also the first Black woman to have her own television show.


Vivian, she was the first woman. Okay, thank you. The first woman in America to have her own television show.


She, her career essentially got ended by McCarthyism. Absolutely. So how does all of this play out on stage? If you don't mind sharing just a little teaser with our listeners.


We do visit some important moments in Hazel's life in the ballet. It's not a really, it's not a narrative, but you get a sense of, of, of who she was and where she came from, and how she was transformed by the influences around her. That's very much a part. You know, the ballet was choreographed by a talented young woman by the name of Tiffany Ray Fisher. And, um, Tiffany has often worked with, um, a commission score, and she brought in a, a composer-slash-DJ by the name of Erica Blunt Lewis, who has constructed a score that draws on Hazel's music, but also draws on Hazel's influences in the music. It's quite, it's quite brilliantly put together. You have to come and see it.


Yes. I love the fact that you are bridging generations as well, from the choreography to the music, and then this historic woman in American history, not just in Black history. Thank you. You've said in the past that ballet needs to be an art form for the 21st century, for 21st century audiences. What do you mean by that? And how does Sounds of Hazel helped to forward that notion?


So, I don't want people to think that I am discounting Sleeping Beauty, because I think that Sleeping Beauty belongs in the 21st century too. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But I also think that when an audience takes the time, an audience member takes the time to come into the theater and they have this experience. And nowadays, you know, as we're coming out of the pandemic, it's a, it's a commitment to take that step, to put yourself into a live performance. That there needs to be some way that they can see themselves, that there can be a, a resonance with their own life experience with what's happening on the stage. And that means that you want to tell stories that are stories that you haven't seen anywhere else, that you may not know anything about.


Another facet of that is who's doing the storytelling? Who we see dancing stories. And you mentioned Dance Theatre of Harlem came about because Arthur Mitchell had that vision to expand the world of ballet. You have furthered that with an equity project as editor at Pointe Magazine. And I'm, I, I guess this is the dancy-dance part since, uh, really the last couple of years we've seen dance companies around the country, including Pacific Northwest Ballet here in Seattle, uh, really expand their core of dancers, their company, who comes to the school, and not just the stories they tell. And so I'm curious then to go back to a question that Vivian asked you with that kind of work going on in a broader way, What is Dance Theatre of Harlem's role? And are these companies doing enough?


It's never enough, no matter what you do. That's, that's for sure. Uh, and I, and I, I do wanna hark back to the fact that we are a conservative art form. And, and it's not just that the audiences may want value to be the way it was, but also the performers want it to be the what's familiar. And so it, it is a constant, You're, you're, you're wrestling with the tide, actually, but you know, you will turn the tide when you create the opportunity to see something different, to understand when you bring a new idea to the stage that it might be something that's resonant with people. You know, Dance Theatre of Harlem has this project called, um, Women Who Move Us, which was, um, something that I started, uh, before the company came back to actually change the voices. Who is making the work?


It's not that that women are saying something different, or maybe it is that women are saying something different, but we haven't had a chance before. So, when you have that, when you have that change of voice, two of the works on this program, our Women Who Move US Projects. Uh, Passage, which is choreographed by Claudia Schreier, is also a work that came out of that system. And you know, I think that the thing that we have to be, we have to be, we have to be brave innovators. We have to look forward and say, Let me give you a chance. It might not work, but if I don't give you a chance, what's gonna happen?


I have to follow up on that because let's just go back to you and your own personal history. Now, when I go to Swan Lake at PNB, there's many kinds of swans, um, each in her own swan glory. Yes. So to speak. I I think when you were coming up, the Swans all had a look, and that look couldn't vary. So, so the art form has to change, but audience expectations have to change as well, don't they?


Well absolutely. It's, it's a, it's a, it's a, it's just like any performance. It's a dynamic that goes from one to the other, from one side of the stage to the other. So, yes, um, I feel that in this country, ballet is the prisoner of an expectation from the 1950. And, you know, that's, that's a long time ago. Yeah. And people are comforted by that vision or not, but it is not something that, it actually reflects what an art form is, which is reflecting reflective of its time. Those great works that we revere Swan Lake and even the balancing works. They came out of a period of time. They are about that period of time. Let's keep doing that. Let's do that now.


Oh, that's beautiful. And I, I, I just, I would be remiss in this conversation about Dance Theatre of Harlem and also talking about Pacific Northwest Ballet, if I didn't mention Kabby Mitchell III. Oh. And the fact that Kabby was with DTH for a period and the first black dancer to be hired by the Pacific Northwest Ballet. And we miss him so much. So much. And I just wanna say, if anybody loves Kabby Mitchell, they should come and support Dance Theatre of Harlem. Cuz you know, he would be out there being an advocate for that too. But moving forward, um, Dance Theatre of Harlem, like yourself, is a cultural icon. And yes, absolutely. We, we know that, We saw that in print and we've been telling everybody <laugh>, in case they don't know, Virginia Johnson is a cultural icon, but you are moving forward and, uh, it's not a retirement, it's an evolution. You are stepping down as Artistic Director or stepping up. What's happening and where does Robert Garland fit into this picture exactly?


So, so this is, this is an important moment, I think, um, uh, I'm passing the baton forward to Robert Garland and it's literally, it, it is a kind of relay race. My job was to bring the company back and, and, and just before the pandemic, I, I looked at the company, I said, We have a company. It's here. It's, it's real, it's happening. You know, I'm, I'm, and I'm very proud of that. But these dancers, the, the wonderful dancers of Dance Theatre of Harlem. they need another challenge. Now. I, I, I did what I could. Robert Garland is a brilliant, brilliant choreographer. And they need somebody with that energy and that focus and that experience to take them to the next level because it is always about going to the next level. I could stay there. I probably could stay there forever if I wanted to. Oh God, that would be crazy <laugh>. But no, what this is, is about, this is about Dance Theatre of Harlem. It's not about me, it's not even about Robert. It's about the idea that Arthur Mitchell started with, this is what ballet can be. And that means that keeps moving forward.


You're such a wise woman and such a graceful individual. I wanna ask, what are some of your biggest hopes or greatest hopes for the future of the Dance Theatre of Harlem?


So, I, you know, I think that we need to be a little bit bigger company. It's really tough with just 18 dancers. The most important thing to me though, is that we find a way to continue to tour the country and the world with this message. And that we find a way to engage in the communities that we come to for performances. And we're doing that here thanks to STG, so that we can actually touch the lives of young people and give them the spark of possibility. So I would like to see our touring become more weekly residencies in a place. Nice. Where you're able to engage with artists in the community, with young people in the community, and then audience members in the community. So I'd like it to be a more, of a cadence of touring to change as we move forward.


I am a ballet nerd. I call myself the biggest ballet nerd. No, but I, I guess what I'm curious about, what do you think the most misunderstood, how the public perceives ballet? What is most, what do they most misunderstand when they're thinking about ballet?


Can I meander with this?


You can do that. I've clearly meandered in the question <laugh>.


So I think that a lot of people don't know how to look at ballet because they think they have to understand it as a, you know, a rational experience. And so, when they look at ballet right now, they can see that it's very athletic and it's very technical and it's very, you know, and, and especially ballet, It's about precision and it's about form and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And so, and that I feel like is a reduction of what the ballet experience is. Ballet is about humanity. Ballet is about human beings doing something aspirational, and they're doing it for themselves and they're doing it for the audience. And so, for an audience to uh, let go of having to go, I understand what's happening, and let themselves feel themselves in the experience, let their eyes and bodies and spirits connect to what's happening in front of them, which means a little bit of taking this off, turning off your head, and just having the experience of being there. It will be so much richer in experience. Cuz right now, you know, dancers can do anything and they're doing more and more of anything. It's like jaw-dropping. But that's not what ballet is. It's, it's, it's humanity. It's, what's the human doing?


Virginia Johnson, outgoing, Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, we are so grateful for the chance to be speaking with you today. It's just been, it's been inspirational.


And every other year, it's my favorite time of year when Dance Theatre of Harlem is in Seattle. And for our listeners, we want you to take note that Dance Theatre of Harlem performs tomorrow November 5th, two performances at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM at the Paramount Theatre. Join us there and go to STG Presents for tickets.


Thank you.


Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you both so much.


Thank you.


DoubleXposure Executive Producers are me, Marcie Sillman.


And me Vivian Phillips. We get production support from Hilary Northcraft, Randy Engstrom and Calandra Childers.


Support for DoubleXposure comes from Pyramid Communications


And we're especially proud to support Crosscut Media's Black Arts Legacies Project, highlighting the role of black artists and arts organizations throughout our cultural landscape.


If you like what you're hearing on this episode of DoubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website,

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