One company in particular that draws many references to the African esthetics of dance, as well as satirical events is The Dance Theatre of Harlem. The Dance Theatre of Harlem is the first African American classical ballet company in the world. The company was founded by Arthur Mitchell, then of the New York City Ballet, and he was the first African American principal dancer in a company of international standing. The Dance theatre of Harlem has quite a vast range in repertoire with multiple works from George Blanching, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Alley.
Focusing on the discipline of dance, Arthur Mitchell brought ballet to Harlem and The Dance Theatre of Harlem evolved from a school with educational programs and professional training into a world-class touring company as its artists became powerful ambassadors for all of America. In 2009, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and Dance Theatre of Harlem exhibited the company’s rare costumes, photos and other memorabilia.
The California African American Museum has supplemented the exhibit with the staging of costumes and video from four iconic ballets and adding life-sized banners and other imagery to illuminate the 40 years of history during which Dance Theatre of Harlem and Arthur Mitchell have received over 300 official citations for excellence. The Dance Theatre of Harlem has many things in common with the Africans Aesthetic in history, especially when it comes to embracing conflicts.
Both the company and the aesthetic compliment each other with the understanding of contrariety, difference, Juxtaposition, cooling, texturing and embracing dissonance. Both the company and the aesthetic had a focus on referencing classics, but reinventing as well. Polymaths are seen a lot within the company’s repertoire, as well s a lack of concern for European standards. The Dance Theatre of Harlem is an excellent example of a company that uses movement styles and forms from early in African American history, and makes it evident throughout all of the companies works, and still exuding that same focus today.
I believe this company remaining ideas and references from history with pushing the envelope constantly by trying to go against typical stereotypes of African American dancers. By having an all African American company, that’s already pushing a stereotype and breaking boundaries of history. They consistently prove hat they are Just as classically trained and beautiful as any other white dancer, and have the notoriety of any other internationally recognized ballet companies.
They constantly drew reference from classical ballet and the African aesthetics, by creating/performing ballets with new ideas and points of view. By changing music, the fast movements, broken lines, bold costumes, the not so historical partnering, and the historical pieces of black history, the company constantly reinvented themselves as well as remained ballets through influences like the African aesthetic. Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem have remained many preferences in dance history, and have drawn back to their cultures as inspiration.
Fireboard was originally a ballet created and performed in Russia by Maurice Abject. Arthur Mitchell had come up with the idea to bring Maurice and Fireboard to the United States to be performed by his dance theatre, but with a twist. Maurice and Arthur decided to recreate the ballet so it made sense for the ballet to be performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. They changed the location of the story line to be in the Caribbean, with these grandiose costumes and changed the movements to compliment the dancers, as well as shock the audience.
Both Maurice and Arthur wanted to remained the story and the dancing to emulate the lives of the dancers. They both wanted to give a vast variety in the movement between extremely athletic and fast movements, while also contrasting those movements with their classical Blanching training. Another piece Arthur Mitchell had remained was the ever so popular and classical Sessile. While on tour with the company in the ass’s, he wanted to take Gillie’s typical story and add some twists to it.
He first chose to take Sessile out of her original setting in Austria and wanted to bring her to the States, specifically Louisiana. He was interested in Americanize Sessile, making her a new, neoclassical Sessile. By casting the show with only Mulatto Gillie’s, it gave the classical variations a new look and feeling throughout the entire ballet. Arthur Mitchell believes that this variation was one of the many that really challenged the company and him to reinvent dance but also reflect on where they came from.
He said he originally wasn’t so interested in the classical side of this story, but he then realized that he would be cheating his dancers if they weren’t able to endure both sides of the spectrum. He lives that by balancing and understanding both contrasting Gillie’s, the company had a growth in maturity while embodying a story not typically meant for African American females. Probably the most controversial and most famous work to be put on the company was George Balance’s “Agony” in 1957.
The reason it was so memorable and controversial was because it was a cast filled with white woman and one black man, and than man being Arthur Mitchell. Agony is a terribly exposing dance, technically, emotionally and physically. The piece requires a lot of focus, force, agility and speed, like many other Blanching works. The music, by Igor Stravinsky, is Jarring and without meter. The dance, Athletic, modern and elegant. The Agony pas De deuce is a true expression of the style of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Times Magazine) “Our company is as strong technically as any professional ballet company,” says Virginia Johnson, artistic director for New York City Dance Theatre of Harlem today. The pas De deuce from Act 3 of the ballet classic Swan Lake is, after all, part of the company’s repertoire. But, as Johnson explains, the Dance Theatre of Harlem strives for something different. “We are a neo-classical company. Our work is based on the idea f moving ballet forward and giving audiences today something that maybe helps them understand their own lives in a different way. With the ideas of constantly pushing the envelope and striving to break boundaries, The Dance Theatre of Harlem and all its members have successfully proven themselves to the world. Through remaining classics, reinventing themselves and others works, the company has managed to develop their own sense of identity, while remaining aware of their history and what they constantly draw back to. The company is a great example of the African Aesthetics in dance history still being used and being relevant today.