When Arthur Mitchell became the first permanent African-American dancer for a major ballet company back in 1955, the American civil rights movement was already beginning to make considerable advancements: The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of desegregating all schools across the country, and the infamous Montgomery bus boycott had successfully ended segregation on city buses in Alabama. So when Mitchell learned of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on that fateful evening in 1968, the setback struck him profoundly, galvanizing an idea that had been brewing during his tenure with the New York City Ballet.
Over the next few months, Mitchell would leave his position with City Ballet, and, together with his mentor Karl Shook, transform an abandoned garage in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood into a classical ballet school and performance company with an emphasis on racial diversity. He called it Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), and over the next few decades, he would single-handedly shift the face of professional ballet across the globe. Here were black and brown bodies, shapely and lean and expertly restaging some of George Balanchine’s most revered ballets — shattering racial and political boundaries wherever they performed.
In 2004, during the company’s debilitating financial crisis, the relevancy of a multiracial ballet company endured, and eight years later, DTH rose from the ashes with founding company member Virginia Johnson at its helm.
Johnson once remarked that Mitchell created DTH “to make people aware of the fact that this beautiful art form actually belongs to and can be done by anyone.” Fifty years later, that message — and the legacy of Mitchell, who passed away last year — carries resounding relevancy.
This season, the company celebrates its 50th anniversary with an international tour, and thanks to the herculean efforts of UCSB Arts & Lectures, will include a stop in Santa Barbara on Wednesday, November 6. The not-to-be-missed program will include a restaging of Christopher Wheeldon’s technically driven pas de deux “This Bitter Earth”; a collaborative piece with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Australian choreographer Stanton Welch titled “Orange”; the tongue-in-cheek “Balamouk” by revered choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; and one of their newest pieces, the critically acclaimed “Passage” by rising star choreographer Claudia Schreier.
4•1•1 | UCSB Arts & Lectures presents the Dance Theatre of Harlem Wednesday, November 6, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.