Virginia Johnson, choreographing Dance Theatre of Harlem’s rebirth

Virginia Johnson was in Lisner Auditorium the moment her future locked into focus. The former prima ballerina of Dance Theatre of Harlem was 12 or 13 at the time and had come downtown with her class at Jefferson Junior High in Southwest Washington for a performance of the Martha Graham Dance Company. They were watching “Deaths and Entrances,” Graham’s turbulent study of heartbreak, when out strode Mary Hinkson, a petite dancer with wide-set eyes and one of the first African Americans in Graham’s troupe.

“It was an emotional event for me,” Johnson, 61, recalls over tea at a Starbucks near Tenley Circle one recent morning. “I wanted to be a dancer, but I’d never seen anyone who looked like me onstage before.”

Newly confident that there would be a place for her in the dance world, the D.C. native went on to train at the Washington School of Ballet and, in 1969, became a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Now, it’s the memory of that long-ago thunderbolt moment that fuels Johnson’s drive to bring Dance Theatre of Harlem back from the abyss — despite the stressed economy, despite the company’s painful shutdown in 2004, despite Johnson’s lack of experience as an artistic director.

DTH was founded by former New York City Ballet star Arthur Mitchell and the late ballet instructor Karel Shook as a home for ballet dancers of color. In its 35 years of existence, the company traveled the world with its message that ballet was wide open — that it was not exclusively an elite white art form. Yet outside that predominantly African American 44-member troupe, the racial makeup throughout the ballet world changed little. When a debt of more than $2 million forced DTH to disband, it seemed that Mitchell’s model of inclusion would amount to a historical curiosity.

Until Johnson stepped in. Mitchell asked her to take over two years ago, and her mix of calm competence and openness to new ideas, her realistic goal of an 18-dancer troupe and her close work with Executive Director Laveen Naidu to bring the debt down to $900,000 have made a DTH rebirth possible, as long as their plans stay on track. The company is slated to make its New York debut in 2013 — and to give a sampling of what is to come, Johnson is bringing the 12-member DTH Ensemble to perform Friday at the Lincoln Theatre.

A couple of the ensemble’s dancers were members of DTH before it dissolved, some danced with other companies and a few are in the professional training program at the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, which has remained open despite the company’s closure. The troupe has traveled extensively over the past two years.

“I believe in touring,” Johnson says. “I feel a philosophical obligation to bring this kind of light into the world and spread it as far as we can.”

Among the five works to be danced Friday are “Six Piano Pieces, Harlem Style,” by Mexican-born choreographer David Fernandez, with music by Moritz Moszkowski; and popular pieces from pre-shutdown days, including “South African Suite,” by Mitchell, Naidu and Augustus van Heerden; and Robert Garland’s “Return,” with music sung by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and others.

“My job is to grow the dancers,” Johnson says. “Dancers need a challenge. If you’re not challenged, you don’t grow; you don’t find out what you’re not doing.”

Tall and dressed in a gray pinstriped pantsuit, with every strand of her dark hair smoothly in place, Johnson projects tasteful understatement and boardroom seriousness. You might think she was a visiting law professor at nearby American University — if you overlooked the small silver pin on her lapel in the shape of twin tutu-clad dancers.

The air of seriousness is authentic: “This is not pie in the sky,” she says of DTH’s re-emergence. “This is carefully thought out. We’re being very conservative.”

Lining up the money was the first step. Among the funders who have made commitments of several years are the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The budget for the entire DTH organization — professional company and school — is projected to be $5.5 million by 2015, says Naidu.

In January, Johnson will start auditioning dancers. The new troupe will take on a retro twist, touring by bus, as the old DTH did back in the day. “In this economic climate,” Johnson says, “it has to be light and flexible.”

As a dancer, Johnson possessed a quiet allure, an elegant quality that hasn’t left her. Yet perhaps because she was drawn to dance by Hinkson — a trailblazer as well as an artist — and perhaps because she made her career in a ballet company that was visibly different from any other, Johnson knows the value of standing out. She knows DTH has to make a strong showing in a world overloaded with entertainment choices, and with a public that knows less about ballet than, say, what it takes to nail the fox trot on reality TV. Naidu praises Johnson’s spirit of adventure.

“She has an incredible knowledge of the art form, but she’s not bound by any of the old traditions,” he says. “There’s a real willingness to explore new things.”

Johnson started a program called Harlem Dance Works, in which she opens the studios to the public for free performances of works in progress. “We come from a tradition where you don’t take photographs or use cellphones when you’re in the audience,” Naidu says. “But in Harlem Dance Works, we encourage people to do that: take pictures, Facebook while you’re sitting right there. Tweet! Do what you do.” In this way, they hope to bring ballet to new audiences on their own terms.

After she retired from dancing in 1997, Johnson founded and edited Pointe magazine. It forced her to broaden her knowledge of the dance field, and she credits that job with causing her to “fall in love with this world again,” she says. She had to be attuned to the diverse needs of advertisers and readers, which now applies to how she thinks about attracting ticket buyers.

Johnson says she’s perplexed by the narrow scope of ballet today, with audiences seemingly content to see a handful of full-lengths — “Swan Lake,” “Romeo and Juliet,” etc. — over and over. “That is a big puzzle to me, the notion that ballet is about those six to eight works, and how limiting that is. That people perceive ballet to be a spectacle — three acts and sets and a story that maybe doesn’t make sense but, oh, isn’t it beautiful. Consumers actually want that. How do we encourage them to expand their appetite?

“At 18 dancers, that’s not really my problem right now,” she says with a laugh, looking down at her tea. “But it is my opportunity. Dance can be about people’s lives.”

To that end, she is searching for artists to create new ballets about the African American experience for DTH’s opening season. Also planned is a revival of Alvin Ailey’s 1972 “The Lark Ascending,” accompanied by the Ralph Vaughan Williams score. It was created for barefoot dancers, but DTH will perform it on pointe, Johnson says.

There’s a stumbling block in her way, however — a lack of seasoned professional dancers to serve her needs now. When the company folded in 2004, “for most of those dancers it was the end of their career,” says Johnson. Forty-some ballet dancers of color were suddenly unemployed — and very few found jobs in other ballet companies. Johnson wanted to bring many of them back to act as stand-ins for choreographers, so ballets could be created using them and then taught to the new dancers once they are hired in 2012. But too much time has passed.

“The thing that’s breaking my heart is, we’re reaching out to former DTH dancers . . . and it’s too late for them,” Johnson says. “They’re past their performance years.”

What might have been for these dancers, what will come of the dancers in the DTH Ensemble, will she find the dancers she needs for the full company — all of this weighs on Johnson as she grapples with the biggest test of her career. But she is heartened by what initially inspired her mentor, Mitchell, who was moved to create DTH as a form of social activism in response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

DTH’s message goes beyond dance, Johnson says. It is “putting this idea out there that here is something that’s beautiful and is an affirmation of your powers. You can define yourself. It doesn’t matter if someone says you can do it or not. You have to put the work in, but you can create a future for yourself.”

The challenges are “terrifying,” Johnson says. But she is propelled by the chance to move audiences the way she was once moved, sitting in the dark and watching her world blow open.

“It scares me to be big,” Johnson says. “But you can’t sneak back onto the scene.”

Dance Theatre of
Harlem Ensemble

8 p.m. Friday at Lincoln Theatre,

1215 U St. NW. Tickets $30-$50.

202-397-7328 or www.ticketmaster.com.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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