Vessels by Dance Theatre of Harlem Vessels by Dance Theatre of Harlem A scene from "Vessels," one of the pieces the Dance Theatre in Harlem will be doing during their June shows in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Matthew Murphy / Dance Theatre of Harlem)

How the Dance Theatre of Harlem made a comeback

Acclaimed dance troupe returns to Israel with new program.

When the Dance Theatre of Harlem was trying to come back from a nine-year hiatus in 2013, one of the cities that was interested in a performance was Tel Aviv. Even though the troupe had only been back together for a year, artistic director Virginia Johnson was ready to face what she called a "sophisticated" audience.

"We go where we’re invited, so we got the invitation to come to Tel Aviv in 2013 and we were very happy," she told From The Grapevine. "The company had been in Tel Aviv before, but back in the days when I was dancing [for them] – that must have been 1989 or 1990."

This week, DTH is performing in Israel for the second time in three years, at the Tel Aviv Opera House tonight through June 12. The program features a mixture of pieces, one of which is "Lark Ascending," created by legendary modern dance choreographer Alvin Ailey. Another piece is "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven," created by Ulysses Dove with music by Arvo Pärt. The final two pieces were created specifically for DTH: "Vessels," created for the current company by Darrell Grand Moultrie, and "Return," created in 1990 by Robert Garland, DTH's resident choreographer.

The latter piece points out what separates DTH from other modern dance troupes. DTH interprets modern pieces through traditional ballet. The dancers wear pointe shoes and perform traditional ballet moves. "Return," according to Johnson, is "a hugely popular work. It is a classical ballet that is done to the music of Aretha Franklin and James Brown."

Diversity and showing the world a different way to look at ballet have been DTH's missions since it was formed in 1969 as a response to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I think the thing that Dance Theatre of Harlem brings to a performance is that we use this language, this classical ballet as our base, as our home, as the defining element of who we are, but we want to show you something else about it," Johnson said. "We want to show you that it’s so much more than six girls standing perfectly in line looking identical to each other, because there’s something more beautiful to this art form than just that very well contained and polite 19th-century iteration."

The company fell on hard times in 2004, stopping production because of debt and lack of funding. In 2010, Johnson, along with since-departed director Laveen Naidu and others, revived the troupe – it's a smaller company than at its peak, 14 dancers instead of 40 – with the goal of performing by 2013. In 2012, they started preparing for 2013 shows, including Tel Aviv. DTH's performance in Israel's largest city was so well-received, they were immediately asked back.

"I think the world needs Dance Theatre of Harlem," Johnson said. "I think the world needs to look at this art form of ballet in a new and more meaningful way. I think that we bring something very unique and very empowering to the stage. We have a message. The message was silent for too long, [and] we need to get back out and bring people together through this art form."

She cited that it was "very difficult" to put the pieces of the company back together again, "but there was a lot of belief from some major foundations in the necessity for Dance Theatre of Harlem to exist, and so we did get some major funding to get us started, and that’s helped."

Part of their comeback is to emphasize education via their dance school, which also motivated Johnson and her colleagues to bring the troupe back to full strength.

"The school is about training young people to be part of our company, but it’s also about training young people to be outstanding citizens of the world, and so the school needed a company to aspire to," she said.

Johnson is excited for the company to reconnect with a Tel Aviv audience.

"As you go out to do your performance, you feel that you’re connected to people, and every city does have a completely different vibration, a different way of being, and that affects you in performance, and what you try to do as a performance is meet that expectation and feel what they’re feeling and give them something they haven’t felt, and feel what they feel when they feel that," she said. "There is some silly wonderful kind of connection, a circular connection between performer and audience, and it’s different in every place."

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