By Roger Catlin
Originally published by The Washington Post
When the Dance Theatre of Harlem makes its annual visit to Washington on Friday and Saturday, it will be helping to break barriers for female choreographers, who dominate the program, just as it has broken barriers for African American ballet dancers.
One of the pieces, “System,” is receiving its local premiere and addresses social justice issues in the Black Lives Matter era, says DTH Artistic Director Virginia Johnson.
Choreographed by Francesca Harper to the music of John Adams and played live by the Attacca Quartet, “System” is “a very contemporary piece, but also very beautiful and uplifting,” Johnson says.
For Johnson, 66, the performances will be a homecoming to the city where she grew up the only dancer of color at the Washington School of Ballet.
A founding dancer of DTH in 1969, where she danced for 28 years, Johnson returned in 2011 as only its second artistic director, charged with bringing back the touring company that had been on hiatus since 2004.
Q: Is it meaningful for you to return to D.C.?
A: It is hugely special. I’m a Washingtonian. I grew up and was raised in Northeast Washington and had a fantastic education in the public schools as well as with a dancer with Washington School of Ballet and with Therrell Smith, my first teacher, who is still teaching.
It means a lot to be back in Washington. I have so much respect for that city, and how it’s grown, how very important the arts are in Washington. I think that’s something you don’t necessarily see in many cities across the country. So it’s always a treat and a test to perform in Washington . . . because it’s a very sophisticated audience.
Q: What drew you to dance?
A: When I was 3 years old, my mother took my sister and myself to classes to support her good friend Therrell Smith, who had just opened a ballet studio. And I fell in love with it right from the start. Right from the start. It was the most wonderful thing. It made me the happiest of anything in the world. It was always challenging, and I liked that. But it was also uplifting. . . .It inspired me.
In 1963 I was listening to the radio and I heard that the Washington School of Ballet was holding auditions for their school. Being a child, I didn’t know there was any reason why I shouldn’t go to the audition. And I went, and [school founder] Mary Day looked me, she looked at me long and hard. But she invited me to be part of the school. But I was the only one at the school at that time.
So yes, it’s been a journey. The through line is that classical ballet is of interest to everyone. It’s something that belongs to everyone.
Q: You must be gratified how many African American girls are getting into ballet these days.
A: It is interesting to me. The thing that people need to know is that we’ve always been here. I’m a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. When Arthur Mitchell decided he wanted to create a company, there were first six, and then there was 12, and then there were 20 dancers, all of us who have been told, “No, you don’t belong here.” He created a place for us to have careers. So we have always had an interest in classical ballet. It’s now that classical ballet is beginning to say, “Oh, let’s welcome them in.”
Q: By now, do you mean today?
A: Gradually. Gradually. It’s taken a good long time. You know, the Misty Copeland effect is fabulous. Because everybody knows Misty and loves her and she’s a beautiful ballerina. She’s not the first. It’s a bit worrisome that people think she is the first. But she has caused a lot of interest, and she’s inspired a lot of young dancers of color. So that’s a good thing.
Q: What were the early days of Dance Theatre of Harlem like?
A: We were pioneers, in a sense. People were thinking we were Harlem Globetrotters when we came to a theater. And then they said, “Oh, you’re ballet dancers.” It was an interesting thing to see how people came to the theater with a lot of skepticism and then left the theater with a lot of belief in what was possible.
Q: You were there for a long time.
A: I was. I was there for the first 28 years. I was first dancing in the corps and then a principal dancer. It was an amazing experience, a very long career for a ballet dancer. I did finally quit, though.
Q: Was it a difficult decision to come back to the company as artistic director in 2011?
A: It was and it wasn’t. This is an impossible job, and I’ve always known that it was an impossible job, and it was not something that I ever aspired to do. But when Arthur Mitchell . . . called me and he said he was stepping down, and he wanted me to step into this role, I had no choice. This is the man who had given me the life I had dreamed of, and it was my turn to make it possible for the next generation of dancers. I found a lot, lot, lot of joy in this position that I never knew was there.
Q: The touring company was closed in 2004. Was it part of your job to create a new professional company?
A: It was indeed. That’s what Arthur Mitchell said — “I’m stepping down, and it’s your job to bring the company back.”
Q: Was that daunting?
A: It was a thrilling challenge. Remember, I’m a person who performed some of the great repertoire in the world, in some of the great opera houses in the world. . . . Being part of Dance Theater of Harlem was the most meaningful thing I had ever experienced. To me, it seemed like, this is something that the world needs to see again.
Q: Was the pool of dancers greater because of what had been created earlier?
A: No. I think that if the company been gone for maybe a year or two it would not have been as difficult as it has been. With Dance Theatre of Harlem off the touring stage for eight years, there’s a generation of dancers who didn’t think there was a place for them to go in ballet. . . .
When you are 14 and 15 and should be turning the gas up on your training, and your aspirations to be a classical dancer, and people are discouraging you, that means that you’re not going to go to that next step, and you’re not going to be ready when there’s a place for you to go. But I found a tremendous group of wonderful dancers that we have built into a fantastic company. That’s one of the joys: seeing this company grow, year by year. Seeing them gain that strength, that mastery. You don’t just add water. It takes time. It takes focus. But it’s happening.