Ballet dancers, sheltered as they often are, seem unlikely prospects for a labor strike. But every now and then the art world's athletes get as upset as anyone else about their work conditions and pull a walkout. That's what happened in New York City early last month with Dance Theatre of Harlem's dancers. Virginia Johnson, who has been a ballerina with the company for 20 years, says that rather than a matter of long-suffered injustices, it was simply a matter of the company's management failing to provide what they had historically provided their dancers on tour.
So the dancers went on strike, and their situation was improved: Specifi-cally, they won two-year contracts, a pay raise of 5 percent and a guarantee of 30 weeks of work a year. Now, says Johnson, everyone has settled down and prepared themselves to do what they do best: perform. "The thing we have to remember," she says over the phone from New York, "is that we're dancers, and dancers need to be dancing." That's precisely what the company will be doing in Houston this weekend.
Founded by New York City Ballet principal dancer Arthur Mitchell, DTH is a neoclassical ballet company that blends Balanchine technique with theatrical elements. Among its most familiar works is the evocative Fall River Legend and the company's oft-performed Giselle, moved from the Old World to the New and set along a Louisiana bayou, which has been featured frequently on television. In Houston, however, the program includes the treat of several new works, among them Robert Gar-land's Crossing Over, John Alleyne's Adrian and South African choreographer Vincent Mantsoe's Sasanka.
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Perhaps in answer to the long New York seasons of the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Thea-ter, Mitchell built up his company of 40 dancers with extensive touring. In the early days, the dancers were on the road for six months each year. That's now been whittled down to about four months annually, in part because DTH has come to enjoy the status of a grand institution.
One of the rarer program segments this weekend is Sasanka. It's purely African dance, performed in bare feet and with a loose torso. The company, says Johnson, had to learn how to move in an entirely different way. "In ballet the torso is so strained, you learn how to think in one direction, but [Sasanka] meant we had to think of movement in a different way, which was a little scary. I wondered if I was going to be able to put my pointe shoes back on."
-- Megan Halverson
Dance Theatre of Harlem performs Friday through Sunday, May 24, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-2787.