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The Plain Dealer  |  January 16, 2017

Dance Theatre of Harlem seeks to model art form's relevance and universality (preview)

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Talk about a dance company on point. Dance Theatre of Harlem knows exactly what it's doing, and why that mission matters.

En route to the DanceCleveland series this week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the famed New York dance troupe is recommitting to inclusivity, underscoring its belief that ballet can and should be a universal language.

"It's an important message to carry forward," said Virginia Johnson, the company's executive director. "We're not a black ballet company.



What: Dance Theatre of Harlem.

When: 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21.

Where: Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $25-$45. Go to or call 216-241-6000.

"We want to give people a different way of looking at this art form. We want people to see this art form as something that's relevant and that can apply to everyone at this time."

Johnson knows of what she speaks. The company she directs might not even be active if the mission she cited weren't still potent enough to inspire her dancers or the public at large.

But it is. When Johnson brought a sleek, readily portable Dance Theatre of Harlem company back to life in 2012 after a lengthy hiatus brought on by over-ambitious touring, she did so with the firsthand knowledge that the vision of company co-founder Arthur Mitchell could change lives. It changed hers, after all.

"He thought that by teaching a classical art form to those who were written off, he could give them the keys to success, no matter their career," Johnson said.

It's precisely this philosophy the company seeks to convey with its program Saturday afternoon and evening at Playhouse Square. Through dance, Johnson said, the troupe will prove and explore the notion that ballet is for everyone.

Robert Garland's "Return," from 1999, blends classical ballet with popular dance moves, upending the traditional art-world order. "For such a long time," Johnson explained, "there's been one idea about who belongs onstage and who dances for us."

"Change," meanwhile, a recent work by Cleveland-based choreographer Dianne McIntyre, approaches the topic from a different angle. To convey the stubborn persistence of racial and gender issues over time, her work asks the dancers to portray significant figures from history.

Issues of male identity and solidarity are at the heart of "Equilibrium (Brotherhood)," by Darrell Grand Moultrie, and "System," by Francesca Harper, grapples with life as an African-American in classical ballet.

"It's very intriguing work," Johnson said. "It deals with our history, but it's also very personal. It's like they're speaking to us through their bodies."

Indeed, that's exactly what they're doing, in "System" and every other work on their Cleveland program. And they're speaking loudly and clearly.

That's because Johnson is discriminating when it comes to repertoire. Whether at home or on the road, the director said she only selects or commissions "gateway" work, pieces she said will speak to "people who feel like they don't like ballet."

"We're saying [ballet] is something they can take extreme pleasure in, and real meaning from," Johnson said. "It's not all princesses and frogs."

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