152nd StreetIt goes without saying that a 40th anniversary should be a memorable celebration. With this in mind, there’s a national treasure on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: 40 years of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

In 1969, Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the nation’s only African-American classical ballet company. And for nearly four decades, the dance company entranced audiences with its brio, mastery and dramatic renditions of European classical ballets such as Firebird and Giselle, as well as original compositions like Mitchell’s Manifestations, Holberg Suite and Rythemtron, and Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, a dance inspired by a Caribbean wedding ceremony.

The exhibition at the Vincent Astor Gallery  at Lincoln Center runs through May 9, 2009, and it documents the company’s rich history as well as many of DTH’s bravura performances. Featuring nearly 200 archival photographs, 40 framed posters, 6 cases with original costumes and set pieces along with other memorabilia from Dance Theatre’s archives, the exhibit is more than a retrospective of DTH. It’s also a meditation on the founders’ vision, the fruition of their work, and the determination of its members and supporters during a time when the formation of a Black ballet company was considered inconceivable. It wasn’t long before naysayers were proved wrong, as Dance Theatre was applauded the world over, often to standing ovations.

“When you are in the process of doing, you don’t realize the magnitude of what you are doing, but now is the time to stop and see what has happened in forty years,” says Mitchell, who turned 75 in March. “It is mind-boggling to see that DTH really is an organization of ‘firsts.’ We were so involved in the doing what had to be done; we did not worry about being the first.”

One of the “first” that DTH introduced to the dance world was dyeing pointe shoes and tights to match each dancer’s natural skin tone. “DTH has a very special place in the history of arts and dance in America, in New York City and in Harlem. And the legacy of DTH is something that could only happen in the United States of America,” Mitchell added.

In the lobby of the gallery hangs a vibrantly colored quilt embroidered with images that depict a few of DTH’s best-known ballets, which was presented to the Dance Theater in 1993 by the Women of Color Quilters. The exhibition starts with a look at Mitchell’s career with New York City Ballet, where he was a member from 1955 until 1968, or 1969, and became its first African-American, male principal dancer. The exhibit then moves along chronologically, beginning in 1969, with Dance Theatre’s early years.

“We actually started at Harlem School of the Arts, which is a part of St. James Church on 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue,” says Mitchell, “with two dancers and thirty children. When we moved to Church of the Master we had four hundred children. When I first saw my students I was ready to get started. It was my lifelong ambition to be a social worker and it was important to me to get the kids off the streets and involved in the arts. I incorporated social service components into the dance training, which is why education and community outreach have always been so important at DTH.”

Mitchell set the wheels in motion for the exhibit more than a year ago. The show presents stills from the company’s official debut at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971. Recalling that premiere performance, Mitchell says, “It was total chaos! Any kind of premiere is chaotic … but it was awesome and a dream come true. We conducted a lecture demonstration and had kids sitting around on the different levels of the museum. We wanted young people from Harlem to see the museum and people to see young people from Harlem at the museum.”

The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s repertoire includes ballets from nearly 60 choreographers from around the world, and a combination of both 19th-century classics, as well as works by dynamic 21st-century choreographers. The exhibit chronicles the company’s performances both in the States and abroad, with images of performances and of its members on tour before DTH ceased performing in 2004 due to financial downturns. The exhibit is truly a trip down memory lane — it is both sentimental and inspiring.

Included among the many archival photographs on display — many of which were taken by Martha Swope and Marbeth — there is one of legendary singers Lena Horne and Leontyne Price energetically rehearsing in DTH’s studio for Harlem Homecoming, which took place at Loews Victoria Theater in 1974. Presenting DTH’s global allure, there is a shot of the company with Nelson Mandela during its 1992 South African tour and photos of the company while in Spain, Britain and China.

“There were thousands of possible submissions — photographs, clippings, brochures, programs, posters and other documents — to include in the exhibit,” says Judy Tyrus, who curated the exhibit and is a former principal dancer with the company. “My task was to make the story as clear and comprehensive as possible so that an outside person looking in could understand the story. I wanted to show the incredible impact of what Mr. Mitchell did and the time that he did it, and show the depth and range of our repertoire; the people who supported us; the artists who were created; and the world audience we developed.

“I had to focus on the story and select the best pieces to tell that story. I was with the company for twenty-two years, so I lived much of the history and I wanted to make sure that the story was not from my perspective. I had to back search and find details that I didn’t know. My main concern throughout was to be as inclusive as possible in every regard and place importance on everyone that helped to make DTH the important cultural institution that it is today,” Tyrus added.

Every bit of space in the gallery radiates with DTH memorabilia and almost everything in the exhibition is original. Highlights of the exhibit are costumes from Dougla, Le Corsaire, Scheherazade, A Streetcar Named Desire, Firebird and Giselle, and set pieces from two ballets. Another centerpiece of the show is an eight-foot-long, wooden puzzle handcrafted by artist Frank Bara and commissioned by Mitchell to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary. “It depicts the first two decades of DTH in incredible detail and is a must-see! It includes the ballets, dancers, donors, DTH floor plans, countries traveled to and so much more. Every time I look at it, I see something that I had not seen before,” says Tyrus.

The showcase also has two video monitors that play selections from performances that have distinguished DTH as a world-renowned company. The video presentations include a look at company rehearsals and lecture demonstrations, and excerpts from television broadcasts that have spotlighted the company, such as the late newscasters Ed Bradley’s 1986 profile for 60 Minutes and Peter Jennings’s 1991 coverage of the company for his series Peter Jennings Reporting.

Asked what he wanted visitors who come to the “40 Years of Firsts” exhibition to walk away with, Mitchell says: “Pride and awareness of the uniqueness of Dance Theatre of Harlem and what it took to survive for forty years.” He adds, “Most importantly, I want people to understand why DTH must continue, because we are a beacon to the all the Harlems of the world, showing that anything and everything is possible once you get your education and your technique.  The exhibition shows there is a need and a want for DTH and demonstrates why there must be a professional company based in Harlem. We take the arts — which transcend race, color and creed — and show that given an opportunity, any child can excel.”

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