How the history of the Dance Theatre of Harlem culminates in Charlotte

By Audrey Baran

January 6, 2016

Dance Theatre of Harlem has traveled the world, performing in 40 countries, 44 states, and over 250 cities since its inception in 1969. But the ethnically diverse ballet company will make its Charlotte debut this month through a partnership with ​Blumenthal Performing Arts, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, and Wells Fargo.

Known globally for its thrilling performances encompassing classical ballet and cutting edge contemporary work, Dance Theatre of Harlem is just as famous for successfully challenging preconceived notions of concert dance and dancers of color. The company was founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Considering the country’s escalating racial tension at the time, this was a bold and pioneering undertaking for two artists. Over the past four decades DTH has received worldwide acclaim for dynamic and demanding repertoire, and  its connection to its roots and the community by establishing an arts education center and a national/international educational outreach program, Dancing Through Barriers®. Every branch of Dance Theatre of Harlem is committed to enriching the lives of young people and adults around the world through the arts.

10. Arthur Mitchell ,George Balanchine,Photo Credit Martha Swope
Arthur Mitchell (Left) and George Balanchine (Right). Photo Credit Martha Swope

Dance Theatre of Harlem will take root in the Queen City through a variety of events this month, including the opening of a five-month exhibition on its history, entitled “40 Years of Firsts” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center. The exhibit showcases a ​host of costumes, sets, documentary videos, tour posters, and more, creating a 360 degree visual journey through​ the multi-cultural dance institution. As remarkable as these photos and videos may be, nothing can take the place of experiencing this eclectic and exciting dance company in person. Dance Theatre of Harlem takes the stage at the Knight Theater for five dance performances January 22-24.

According to Tom Gabbard, President/CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts Charlotte, has “had our eye on Dance Theatre of Harlem for a few years, monitoring their rebuilding to determine when they were back at the high artistic level of their past.” When BPAC decided the time was right to invite DTH for its first Charlotte engagement, they learned that the Gantt Center was interested in hosting the company’s historical exhibition. With the addition of Wells Fargo to the partnership, Dance Theatre of Harlem will now have an even larger impact on the community. Thanks to Wells Fargo’s contribution, 1,200 young people and their parents will have a chance to see the show at no cost. Gabbard adds, “We are working with local agencies and schools to carefully identify these students who otherwise would not have been able to afford to attend.” The collaboration between BPAC and the Gantt Center uniquely links the live performance and educational exhibition. Every ticket to the dance performance includes admission to the exhibit that can be used at anytime during its five-month run. During its residency, the company will host a variety of activities for movers and students of all ages, as well as continuing workshops in conjunction with the exhibition.

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HUD 0326 – Le Corsaire’ tutu, c. 1979 – Photo 2013 © Earl Hudhall

While the company’s power and prowess on stage is remarkable in itself, it is its commitment to community engagement, combined with the likeminded goals of BPAC, the Gantt, and Wells Fargo that makes this event even more impactful. Tom Gabbard notes, “It’s a great tribute to both Dr. King and Arthur Mitchell that the company will make their Charlotte debut during the MLK birthday week.” Given today’s social climate surrounding issues of race in the U.S., especially here in the South, there could not be a better time to celebrate the presence of exquisite African American artists like Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Check out Dance Theatre of Harlem January 23 – 24 at KNIGHT THEATER

Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of First by The New York Public Library

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