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Harlem dance group finds its way to L.A.

March 07, 2008|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Until a few years ago, whenever Dance Theatre of Harlem was on a tour of U.S. cities, it routinely held auditions for its school's summer program or to spot potential apprentice dancers. But that was before September 2004, when financial realities forced the umbrella organization to put the professional troupe on hiatus.

At the time, DTH founder and artistic director Arthur Mitchell says, he expected an interruption of a year at most. But although the sizable deficit and the grim overall financial situation that threatened the organization in 2004 have diminished substantially, no one will be seeing the professional company in the near future.

Instead, DTH is conducting a 10-city audition tour devoted solely to the intensive student summer program at its spacious Harlem headquarters, which continues to hum with activity. The Los Angeles tryouts will be held Sunday at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.

"We made up our minds that we wanted to fill that gap that existed because the company was no longer on tour," the indefatigable and eternally youthful Mitchell, who will turn 74 this month, said the other day. Just outside the conference room where he sat hung posters from DTH's foreign tours -- souvenirs of engagements in Monte Carlo, Verona, Germany, Barcelona.

The summer program keeps 150 young dancers busy with classes five days a week and outings to Broadway shows, museums and other cultural offerings. The faculty has included some of Mitchell's former colleagues (Jacques D'Amboise, Allegra Kent) from New York City Ballet, where he achieved fame as the company's first black principal dancer. This year, the students will be taught not only by Mitchell but also by many onetime DTH principals and by former Martha Graham star Mary Hinkson.

Education was the primary impetus for the organization Mitchell founded in 1969. Students came first. Within a couple of years, however, the most talented of them were ready to perform, and a company was born that cultivated talented black ballet dancers and developed a distinctive repertory featuring many George Balanchine works. These the dancers performed with a bracing individuality that also characterized the contemporary works made for them and the company's landmark 1984 "Creole Giselle."

When DTH last performed in Los Angeles, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in January 2004, the major new work was Michael Smuin's "St. Louis Woman," based on a 1946 Harold Arlen musical. Mitchell had hopes that the work, subtitled "A Blues Ballet," might be adapted for Broadway and provide a steady, New York-based source of income at a time when the company's deficit was approaching $2.3 million.

"Every company needs a moneymaker. We were trying to find a niche that was uniquely ours," he explained. "There were a lot of people who were very interested, but when it came to raising the money, the timing didn't work out." So eight months later, he made the painful announcement that the company, then at 44 dancers, was going on hiatus.

Indeed, the financial picture got so bleak that even the school -- which now has 800 students, from adorable 3-year-olds in regulation powder-blue leotards to pre-professional youngsters who perform as the Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble -- had to close for six weeks. Today, Mitchell can cite more positive figures.

For one thing, there are several new members on the Dance Theatre of Harlem board, whose ranks had been depleted at the time the company hit its low point. For another, "we finished in the black each of the past three years. Putting the professional company on hiatus cut the organization's annual budget in half. Right now it's about $4 million."

Mitchell said he would love to have some positive news about relaunching the company in time for the organization's 40th anniversary next year. He envisions a more streamlined troupe of about 20 dancers, and he wants to be in a position to offer them three-year contracts. He realizes it would take that kind of security to lure back the former members who are now performing with a variety of companies (three are with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which is coming to the Orange County Performing Artscenter next week) but who have expressed interest in returning.

"There is a new energy to figure out a way to bring the professional company back," notes Virginia Johnson, an original member of the company and for many years its leading ballerina (as well as its first Giselle), who is now the editor of Pointe Magazine. DTH alumni organized a reunion last year and remain involved in the organization, she says. "E-mails are flying, and there are strong feelings that we would like to see an announcement in conjunction with the 40th anniversary."

Mitchell knows there is great interest in seeing the company back onstage. When a DTH representative attended a recent conference of performing arts presenters, three dozen expressed interest.

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