While thousands of ballet fans are flocking to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s (PNB) production of The Nutcracker, another dance company is being celebrated just a few miles away. The Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) is hosting the traveling exhibition “Dance Theatre of Harlem: Forty Years of Firsts.” The show highlights the accomplishments of the ballet company since its first production in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1971. Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) is where Black artists came together to make a space for themselves in the notoriously Eurocentric world of ballet.
“I think when you walk in you feel your sense of who you are, who you could be, what is available is broadened,” NAAM spokesperson Helen Thomas said. “I just imagine Black kids, but even kids of all colors, this thing that I want to be but have been told I couldn’t be — or kind of have on the back burner — is a possibility.”
Visitors to the exhibition will see black-and-white photographs documenting the dance company’s inaugural show, bright bejeweled costumes with intricate designs and performance posters. The show also includes videos of its performances of iconic ballets, such as Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” The exhibit brings together more than 250 objects to educate visitors about the accomplishments and significance of DTH.
Dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell and ballet master Karel Shook co-founded DTH in 1969 in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They initially offered classical ballet classes “with intention to ignite positive social change.” Soon after they formed a traveling dance company.
“I think it’s very important that we’re recognized because we’re just as important as New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, but because we’re Black they try to act like we’re just regional,” said former DTH dancer Kabby Mitchell — no relation to Arthur. “This is an international company. Josephine Baker came to see Dance Theatre of Harlem back in the day. They’ve danced for kings and queens.”
Judy Tyrus, exhibition curator and former DTH prima ballerina, said they traveled to six continents to perform at opera houses and theatres. One of her most memorable performances was with Princess Diana watching in the audience.
"After the performance, she came backstage and spoke to each dancer individually. She asked us all different questions," Tyrus said. "It took her awhile, because we were probably around 40 dancers, but she had a conversation with all of us."
Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela are also among the vast number of people who watched the graceful pirouettes of the dancers. In one video, Arthur Mitchell explained his initial hesitance to perform in South Africa in 1992. He shared Mandela’s words to him, “At this particular time, the only company in the world that can come here and have the impact that I’d like is Dance Theatre of Harlem because you’ve proven that any child given an opportunity can excel. So I said, ‘Mr. Mandela, I cannot refuse you.’”
Kabby Mitchell performed with DTH in 1977. Seeing the exhibition brings back bittersweet memories of his time there because many of his friends and colleagues have passed away from AIDS. After leaving DTH, he went on to become the first Black dancer with PNB. Today he’s a professor of dance at Evergreen State College. As Kabby Mitchell reflects on where ballet is today, he’s disappointed in the lack of diversity. Misty Copeland, who made history by becoming the first Black principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, is an exception.
“We were the group that proved to the world that Black people could do ballet,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a dying art form if they continue to have that kind of exclusivity and just have it White. It has to change because I think you’re going to lose your audience.”
Despite the challenges Black ballet dancers face in the industry, DTH shows success is still possible.
“I think it’s inspiring in particular for Black girls who can see themselves because you can’t see yourself at PNB,” Kabby Mitchell said.
Tyrus said DTH is still a thriving company today because of a relentless pursuit over the years to make the show better. DTH has made a positive and lasting influence on the community.
"It has consistently brought social, educational and artistic opportunity to thousands of dancers, choreographers, teachers, musicians, technicians and administrators," Tyrus said. "Its early mission continues and still impacts so many lives."
More than 100,000 visitors in ten cities across the country have seen the exhibition. The show ends March 19, 2017.
This article has been updated to include additional quotes.