- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

When Martin Luther King was slain in 1968, choreographer George Balanchine responded by creating "Requiem Canticles," which was given a one-time-only performance as a tribute to the fallen civil rights leader.
The response to Mr. King's death by Arthur Mitchell, one of Mr. Balanchine's leading male dancers at the New York City Ballet, was more lasting. He created a company that gave black performers a chance to shine in what had been a largely white preserve, classical ballet.
Since its inception 32 years ago Mr. Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) has had more than its share of ups and downs. Since September 11, Mr. Mitchell says, supporters have been preoccupied with the terrorist fallout.
"We hear from our usual funders, 'It's not that we're not going to give you anything, but you're going to go on the docket later,'" Mr. Mitchell says. "And we don't have that kind of cash flow to support ourselves. But somehow we keep surviving."
Embattled but still full of determination, the company arrives Tuesday at the Kennedy Center for its 26th Washington season. It will perform through Dec. 16.
The DTH-Washington connection is a strong one. No other dance company has appeared here annually for that span of time.
Nine years ago, DTH also began a training program here. It auditions students and teaches ballet in high schools and inner-city areas. Especially promising students are invited for further training at DTH's school in Harlem. Two of the best and brightest from this program, Eric Underwood and Preston Dugger, are now in the company. Mr. Underwood will be dancing some major roles here.
This same productive coming-up through the ranks enriches the repertoire the company will be dancing. Mr. Mitchell encourages his dancers to turn to choreography, and two results of that Lowell Smith's "Pas de Deux for Phrygia and Spartacus" and Robert Garland's "New Bach" have their Washington premieres next week.
"When we had our fall season at City Center in New York those two works were on the program, along with new ballets by two other former company members Laveen Naidu and Augustus van Heerden. How many other companies have nurtured so many choreographers?" Mr. Mitchell asks rhetorically.
The DTH enterprise has a family feeling. Its ballet masters are all former company members, as are many members of the administrative staff. The DTH school is a kindergarten-through-12th-grade program, and it's expanding. Next fall, a DTH program will operate at Barnard College.
"We're neighbors," Mr. Mitchell says. "It's on [West] 120th Street; we're on [West] 152nd Street."
The director is especially pleased about the Barnard connection because education has been an important emphasis of his from the beginning. He has an educational outreach program called Dancing Through Barriers and is expanding that concept this fall with a Dancing Through Barriers project that will tour New York's five boroughs.
"We tour all over the world but here at home someone from Staten Island doesn't go to New York, New York doesn't go to Brooklyn, someone from Brooklyn doesn't go to Long Island. I suddenly realized we should tour the boroughs everyone thinks it's a genius idea," he says, laughing.
The next project Mr. Mitchell wants to tackle is building a theater on 152nd Street.
"It's in the works," he says. "I don't want to say much because there's got to be a major press conference about it and major fund raising. The theater would not only let us have our dance training and performing, but we could train our students in all aspects of theater lighting, sets, costuming, stage managing, arts administration. Fortunately, we already own our building for the company and school. We've gone on to acquire property in the neighborhood for the new theater."
Living in New York after September 11 has led Mr. Mitchell to emphasize entertainment in the two programs he is bringing here. The first program includes "South African Suite," which he choreographed with Mr. Van Heerden and Miss Naidu. Colorful and zestful, the suite is distinguished by music by the Soweto String Quartet. The music was played live when the work was first presented here, but recordings now are used in tours.
An even more extroverted number will come after the exuberant work. It is "Dougla," a flamboyant celebration of Hindu, African and Trinidadian traditions for which the multitalented Geoffrey Holder created the choreography, music and costumes.
A pas de deux, "Phrygia and Spartacus," choreographed by Mr. Smith to music by Aram Khachaturian, will feature performances by Melissa Morrissey and Duncan Cooper.
Mr. Cooper, built for larger-than-life heroes, is one of the most striking male dancers in the company. He made a memorable debut here a few years back in the title role of "Prodigal Son."
In addition to dancing the gladiator Spartacus in the first program, he will be seen in the second program as Oedipus in Glen Tetley's "Sphinx." This will be the first time the dance company has performed this work in Washington.
The first program concludes with Robert Garland's hard-edged, cool-hot "Return," to a medley of music by James Brown and Aretha Franklin, among others.
The second program scheduled for next weekend features the local premiere of Mr. Garland's "New Bach," set to the Bach Violin Concerto in A Minor. Mr. Mitchell describes the new work as "bringing in contemporary modern street dance but still classically based."
Billy Wilson's abstract but dramatic conception of "Concerto in F" to the familiar George Gershwin score also will be part of the second program.
Mr. Mitchell's choices are steering his company away from the neoclassicism of Mr. Balanchine, whose work was part of the repertoire in the past. That work is a rich part of the director's own heritage. Mr. Balanchine created many roles for him, most memorably the great pas de deux in "Agon" and Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." But Mr. Mitchell says whatever ethnic or hip-hop roads the company travels, it still will be classically based.
"This is my 52nd year as a dance professional," Mr. Mitchell says. "I was fortunate to grow up under two of the greatest figures in 20th century dance George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, who founded the New York City Ballet. Their ideas are part of me.
"People wonder if the company could run without me but if, God forbid, anything should happen to me I have all these choreographers and staff who could take over. It used to be said that I was chairman of the board, CEO, artistic director, choreographer and teacher. But now it's simpler: I'm artistic director and board member."
The company's recent change of name from Dance Theatre of Harlem to Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem would seem to belie that assessment. Certainly, leaving his beloved company seems furthest from Mr. Mitchell's mind.
"I'm 67 now," he says. "In the corporate world, at that age everyone is retiring and moving to Florida to play golf. But artists at 67 are actually very young."
Anyone who sees Mr. Mitchell in action working for the company he has guided for 32 years would hardly dispute that claim.

WHAT: Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem
WHERE: Kennedy Center's Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday through next Saturday, 2 p.m. next Saturday and Dec. 16
TICKETS: $26 to $65
PHONE: 202/467-4600, 800/444-1324 or https://kennedy-center.org

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