Dance Theatre of Harlem may have had some downs and ups in the past few years, but as Arthur Mitchell's groundbreaking troupe heads into its 25th anniversary season this month, it's finally business as usual for the company. And that's always meant more than just dancing.
The New York-based Dance Theatre has not performed in the L.A. area since 1990. It's back Friday through Sunday at El Camino College, performing two different bills, including a number of works not previously seen in California.
The company also will be continuing the educational work for which it is well-known. In addition to special student shows and lecture-demonstrations at El Camino and the South Bay Center for the Arts, dancers will visit three schools in South-Central L.A., where they'll teach classes, hold assemblies and work closely with students, thanks to the sponsorship of a grant from Pacific Bell.
The educational work is no less a part of the Dance Theatre mission than the performances. "Part of what we do has always been community outreach," says company founder and artistic director Mitchell in an interview at his Torrance hotel.
"The structure that you get from studying the arts can help change your life. And this helps us get new audiences into the theater too. Part of the responsibility of the artist is this interaction."
Mitchell, of course, knows whereof he speaks. Famous for breaking the color barrier when he joined the New York City Ballet in 1955, he was the first African-American dancer to be part of a major American ballet company. After the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell and Karel Shook founded Dance Theatre in 1969 as a way to better the lot of Harlem children. The company has since performed for European royalty, at the White House and around the world.
More recently, however, the troupe fell on some tough times. Dance Theatre had to lay off 50 dancers and staffers for six months in 1990 in order to regain financial stability. It is, however, stable once more.
In 1992, Dance Theatre became the first predominantly black American dance company to perform in South Africa. "We made a historic trip, breaking the cultural bans there," says Mitchell. "That was something that changed not only myself but the dancers in terms of giving us another dimension as artists."
Moreover, Mitchell feels that the trip had an equally profound impact on the many lives--from township kids to Nelson Mandela--that Dance Theatre touched in South Africa.
"The changes that we effected could only happen because we were artists," he says. "We weren't businessmen. We weren't politicians. We were using a universal common denominator, sharing our art form. And because we were dealing with the arts and with their children, everyone said OK, we'll make a truce. That's what's incredible about being in the arts, that you can really effect change."
With the hard times and South Africa now both behind the company, changes also are appearing on the home front. The company headquarters on 152nd Street in Harlem is nearing completion of a $6.5-million expansion project, financed in part by a $3-million grant from the City of New York.
When finished, the school and company home will have four studios, various other dance-related facilities and, as Mitchell stresses, "our music library and our dance library, because these are required subjects when you study at the school." Marketing, development and production offices, which have been housed at three additional locations in Manhattan, will now also be part of the Harlem complex, whose official opening is set for Feb. 11. "It's not as large as we would want, but it's more than we had," Mitchell says. "This is phase one. In phase two, I'd like to have a small theater. And in phase three, I'd like to have dormitories, so that we can house young people who come from across the country and around the world to study."
It's an ambitious vision. Yet that, combined with a fervent belief in the power of the arts to give young people's lives direction, has always been what Mitchell is about. "It goes back to the basic mandate that Dance Theatre was originally set up for: artistic, educational and social," says the man who already has 10 honorary doctorates to his name and will be among the honorees at the Kennedy Center Awards this year.
"Twenty-five years now have passed and the buzzwords in America now are arts and education. We've been talking about that since the inception of Dance Theatre. This is an example of what can happen if you give young people the opportunity. It shows it's the quality of the work that you do that matters, not where you come from, or your race, class, creed or color. I've always said, either you hit the high C or you don't, regardless of the color of your throat."
* Dance Theatre of Harlem performs at the Marsee Auditorium, El Camino College, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance, 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday. Information: (800) 832-2787.