"WE'RE COMING home, coming to the Kennedy Center," Arthur Mitchell crowed late last week about his Harlem-based ballet company. That's Harlem in New York. But Washington, and the Kennedy Center in particular, still feel much like home to Mitchell, the 70-year-old founder and director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. It's home or home away from home as well for at least a half-dozen of the company's dancers who have close ties to the center and to the Washington area.
When the troupe opens its weeklong Kennedy Center run on Tuesday, with a three-day tribute to George Balanchine -- Mitchell's mentor and the reason he was able to jumpstart his fledgling company so quickly 35 years ago -- it will be a vibrant homecoming indeed, even as the 44-member company struggles to stave off a daunting deficit and remain solvent in very trying economic times.
"I think this is our 25th year at the Kennedy Center," Mitchell said recently, just back from a nine-week tour of the United Kingdom. "We're in Washington every year, even when we don't have a season in New York." Plus, Dance Theatre has cemented its relationship to its home outside of Harlem with Dancing Through Barriers, now in its 11th year at the Kennedy Center. The educational program offers ballet classes to selected disadvantaged young students from Washington, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Auditions are held annually, and the program runs throughout the school year.
Mr. Mitchell, as absolutely everyone refers to him, has deeply planted roots in Washington. Though born and raised in New York, as a young man he began teaching at the well-regarded Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in the District in the early 1950s, even before Balanchine invited him to join the New York City Ballet in 1955, notably as the first African American member of the company.
"Doris Jones and Claire Haywood . . . " Mitchell reminiscences, "they produced wonderful dancers." Then he starts naming names: Tony Award-winner Hinton Battle, choreographers George Faison and Louis Johnson, dancer-singer-actor Chita Rivera. And that's only from the old days. Jones and Haywood founded their school in 1941 and helmed the Capitol Ballet from 1961 to 1983. It was among the first minority classical ballet troupes, and in many ways it was a precursor to Mitchell's own company.
The Jones-Haywood School has been a boon for Dance Theatre of Harlem over the years, training many of its dancers. Dionne Figgins began ballet lessons at the Georgia Avenue NW studio when she was 6. A company member for five years, Figgins says of her early mentor, "Miss Jones is very strict. She definitely pushed us very hard. She never made anything easy, and she let us know this is not an easy profession." Figgins, who next week dances the second "Sanguinic" movement of Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" and is part of a lead couple in the Washington premiere of "St. Louis Woman," enjoys the company of a number of her Washington area colleagues, among them ballerina Kellye Saunders, a fellow Jones-Haywood student; powerhouse Preston Dugger, who studied at Duke Ellington School for the Arts and in the Dancing Through Barriers program; Alicia Graf, a Columbia native; Lenore Pavlakos, who danced with the Maryland Ballet; Naimah Willoughby, who trained at the New Ballet School in Maryland; Rejane Duarte, a Dancing Through Barriers student; and Sonny Robinson, a midwesterner, who did a training stint at Washington's Kirov Academy.
Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mitchell says, was created to dispel the myth that blacks couldn't be classical ballet dancers. As he says, "It's not about color, it's about quality." And it always has been.
DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM -- Tuesday through June 13 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 202-467-4600.