Poised for change at a company where dancers of color feel at home

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Poised for change at a company where dancers of color feel at home
From left: Ingrid Silva, Lindsey Donnell and Stephanie Rae Williams of the Dance Theater of Harlem, at New York City Center in Manhattan, April 18, 2023. Three of the company’s senior dancers reflect on working with Virginia Johnson, a founding member of the barrier-breaking organization, who is stepping down as its leader. (Nate Palmer/The New York Times)

by Charmaine Patricia Warren

NEW YORK, NY.- Before they were members of Dance Theater of Harlem, Lindsey Donnell, Ingrid Silva and Stephanie Rae Williams were each the only Black student in their hometown dance classes.

As young dancers taught by white instructors, they had to navigate not only building a career in dance but also building a career as Black ballerinas. If they joined a predominantly white company, would they be made to feel invisible? For Donnell, Silva and Williams — and many more like them — Dance Theater of Harlem, or DTH, with a mission of showcasing Black excellence in ballet, became their goal.

Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, a star of New York City Ballet, and his teacher Karel Shook, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Dance Theater of Harlem broke barriers in ballet and introduced the world to exemplary Black ballerinas. Among the finest was Virginia Johnson, a founding member, who helped resurrect the company after it had been forced to shut, in 2004, because of financial problems. Johnson took over as artistic director in 2010, and the company began performing again in 2012. Now she is moving on, and the Dance Theater — at City Center through Sunday — will have a new leader in choreographer Robert Garland.

With the company in transition, I talked on Zoom to its senior dancers — Donnell, from Texas, who declined to give her age; the Brazilian-born Silva, 35; and Williams, 34, from Salt Lake City — about working with Johnson, life in the company and how the landscape has changed for dancers of color. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What do you cherish most about working with Virginia?

WILLIAMS: Virginia spent a lot of time coaching us and giving us private lessons, especially in her first three years as director of the Ensemble. [The Ensemble was formed in 2008 to showcase a small touring group of the school’s senior students.] And when the company returned in 2012, we had private lessons scheduled into our day. In our sessions, we worked on taking away all that I was doing with my face and my expression to find the cleanest technique. We worked for years on improving my arabesque so it could be the best, cleanest, just pure.

DONNELL: Virginia’s always working on our focus. She says your eyes tell so much. In ballet, there are certain head tilts, and your eyes are toward the corner, but she always asked me to see something, develop a story, and then show it to her through the movement.

SILVA: The private coaching was really good because she also got to know us. She always wanted me to move big and connect my movements. I used to have this variation in “Vessels” by Darrell Grand Moultrie, and she coached me in every step. We were going for hours on that solo; this is the first thing that she polished in my dance journey. That was the beginning of everything for me.

Q: What’s your first memory of stepping into Dance Theater of Harlem’s famous building?

SILVA: I saw what I’ve always looked for in a dance room: a room full of people that looked like me.

DONNELL: I remember being at barre on the first day, in Studio 3 with the beautiful red brick, and not having ever experienced seeing a multitude of beautiful Black and brown skin, I was like, “Oh, this is different.”

WILLIAMS: It was for my audition. There was this big picture of Arthur Mitchell and the red brick. And then putting on brown tights for the first time — I knew I couldn’t show up in pink tights. But I had never really danced in brown tights. So it’s not like they matched my skin tone or anything. A total giveaway that it was my first time in the building.

Q: What’s the tea on Dance Theater auditions? Tell me about yours.

WILLIAMS: In 2010, there were whispers on the street that Virginia Johnson was coming back and she’s going to start the new DTH. Black ballet dancers in New York City were asking, “Is this really happening?”

Anyone who’s auditioned for DTH knows it’s not an easy audition. I didn’t know if I got it right away. I called my mom as I was walking back to the subway down Sugar Hill on St. Nick, and I said, “Oh, my gosh, Mom. I walked into that building, and it felt like I had come home.” Virginia hired me for the Ensemble, and I’ve been with the company ever since.

SILVA: Mr. Mitchell hired me in 2008, and I still make jokes about the long audition, too. He saw a lot of things in me that I didn’t. I was very shy, and the language thing didn’t help at first because I was discovering everything. I remember doing barrel turns in class, and he would say, “You have to look up. You have to come to the front and be present. You didn’t come all the way from Brazil to look at the floor.”

DONNELL: Virginia hired me in 2012, and I remember how long the audition was because you went through the ballet class: barre, center, and classical variation. And then they didn’t call my number. I was really upset, but they were still going to do partnering, so I decided to stay by the door to take off my pointe shoes. They had an extra man, and I heard, “Hey, Lindsey, why don’t you just do partnering with him?” And so I put a thousand percent in the partnering section and ended up getting the job.

I always think maybe it was my partnering skills, but I wonder if I was called on purpose or it was an accident. Oh, my God, I guess I should ask Virginia before she leaves.

Q: Did you know that pink tights and shoes were not allowed at Dance Theater, and that “pancaking” — powdering your shoes with makeup — was the norm before skin tone shoes were made?

DONNELL: When I first came to DTH, it felt foreign to wear skin-tone tights because pink is the classic look. When I guested out for my first “Nutcracker,” at the American Dance Theater of Long Island, I danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and I was like, well, Sugar Plum is pink. So that year, I wore pink tights, pink tutu and pink shoes. But the next year, I wore brown shoes and brown tights. All the moms that I had made friends with from the previous year were like, “Wow, Lindsey, that change of attire continues your line and shows your body. I feel like I’m watching you dance rather than a costume.” Ever since then, I only wear brown. Wearing pink feels like an accessory rather than dancing from my soul.

WILLIAMS: What is incredible is that in the 21st century, everyone is wearing tights that are their skin tone. Maybe not in every ballet company, but everyone’s doing it. Freed, Bloch and these big manufacturing companies are making shoes that match people’s skin tone. It’s showing that the legacy of Dance Theater of Harlem for the last 53 years has extended outside of the building, outside of Harlem.

Q: Garland’s “Return” is a funky mix of African American vernacular and neoclassical steps to recordings by James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Was learning it a rite of passage?

WILLIAMS: Oh, my gosh, “Return” is the first thing the dancers learn in the Ensemble, and those rhythm and ball changes that you don’t learn in ballet, but you learn in jazz and tap — that was a challenge. But the more it gets in your body, you find the rhythm, and you understand. I just put the music on, and then it’s in there.

DONNELL: Doing something outside of my ballet vocabulary, I was just like, what? I was trying to include those ballet nuances, and I was ignoring the groove of it. I had to reorient myself, put on another hat, make the ballet parts very clean and then really get down on the get-down parts! Mr. Garland knows the importance of building the community and shepherding younger dancers.

Q: How do you see the ballet landscape in New York City today in terms of diversity? How does Dance Theater fit in?

SILVA: Other companies still have a lot to do. I agree that they’re doing it, but I would love to see them push further and give more opportunities to Black artists. There are a lot of talented dancers who need opportunities, and we need to make this happen.

WILLIAMS: I’m seeing more dancers of color. I’m seeing more openness to different styles of dance in mixed repertory programs. I’m seeing more women choreographers of color going to major companies, and I think that Arthur Mitchell and Virginia Johnson’s work uptown at Dance Theater of Harlem is responsible for some of that.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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