How the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired the Dance Theatre of Harlem

Classic Arts Features   How the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired the Dance Theatre of Harlem
 
The great American arts institution was built on a model of inclusiveness.
Arthur Mitchell
Arthur Mitchell Sharon Perry

On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, delivering his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Initially there had been concerns he might miss the rally due to a bomb threat. The following day, as King prepared for another rally, he turned to musician Ben Branch and said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Then he stepped out on to the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Julian Barber, a reporter for WTOP TV in Washington D.C., was the first to report Dr. King had been shot. Soon all three national television networks would interrupt their broadcasts with the news of his assassination.

Harlem seemed to react to Dr. King’s murder with a collective moan. Strangers embraced and openly sobbed on the street, then parted, going on alone, while others simply asked, “Why? Why?” this moment of deep despair Dr. King’s own words, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” offered both solace and the will to keep the dream alive.

Arthur Mitchell, compelled by the tragedy, took action. He saw the opportunity to change the lives of the young people in his community by opening a ballet school. In the beginning, Mitchell’s vision of bringing classical ballet to the youth of Harlem was met with doubt. “Well, the field really thought I had lost it,” explained Mitchell. “The rumors that went around—‘he’s crazy, insane, nuts, black kids can’t relate.’ Even the black community didn’t know why I was coming uptown to do ballet.”

Skeptics never deterred Mitchell. In 1955 he joined New York City Ballet. By 1958 he was a soloist and by 1962 he was the first African American to achieve the rank of principal of a major ballet company. At that time, only three other African-American dancers held positions in the city’s major ballet companies.

Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers in <i>Valse-Fantaisie</i>
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers in Valse-Fantaisie Dave Andrews

In 1969, Mitchell opened his school with two dancers and 30 students in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church, the original home of Dorothy Maynor’s Harlem School of the Arts. He was part teacher, part taskmaster, part parent, and 100 percent showman, and the school’s enrollment rose meteorically to over 400. Philanthropist Alva B. Gimbel became an early patron. Her great gift was the purchase and renovation of a garage at 466 W 152 St, which remains the home for the school and company to this very day.

Applying his mentor George Balanchine’s canon of “first a school, then a company,” Mitchell realized he would have to create an outlet for the talent he was developing. In just two years, the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) made its official debut as a company on January 8, 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum. Over the years, the company performed an eclectic repertoire that demonstrated the power of diversity.

In 2012, under the artistic leadership of former principal ballerina Virginia Johnson, the return of Dance Theatre of Harlem meant revisiting Mitchell’s original template to rebuild a world-class company. Defying skeptics again, DTH recaptured the public’s attention with a diverse company and a choreographic aesthetic that was a model of inclusiveness. Fast forward to 2018 and the company continues that artistic mandate, performing classical, neoclassic, and contemporary works by Balanchine, Geoffrey Holder, Robert Garland, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Marius Petipa, Christopher Wheeldon, and Dianne McIntyre. Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement’s most iconic messenger was silenced, Dr. King’s message still rings true, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

Choreographer, arts critic, and educator Walter Rutledge has written commentary for Dance Magazine, Attitude, Orlando Times, and Harlem World Magazine. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Out & About NYC Magazine.


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