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.