Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts Comes to TSU

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How do you immortalize dance? The movements are fluid and transitory, like condensation rolling down the side of a glass of iced tea in the hot sun.

Will a camera do? The multimedia exhibit, "Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts," on view since February 8 at The University Museum at Texas Southern University, thinks so, with a mostly photograph retrospective chronicling the last 40 years of the company.

The exhibition starts with a shot of five lithe dancers in a backwards bend, just above John T. Biggers' Web of Life oil-on-canvas masterpiece on permanent display at the museum. On the right wall, another dancer's body, arms outstretched, takes the backwards bend to another level. In the ultimate extension of the move, a male dancer's arms and legs are captured jumping inward, turning his body into a human pyramid.

Posted around these images are posters and playbills that the company used to publicize their local, national and international performances, including a very special gold-embossed catalog highlighting a performance for the late Princess Diana.

The other rooms are where the photo history of Dance Theatre of Harlem, or DTH, for short, begin. There are images of Arthur Mitchell, the company's founder, with his mentor, the legendary dancer and coach George Balanchine. There are the seductive contortions of the female ballerinas. There are the muscular stances from male members of the company.

Placed next to these photos are corresponding costumes, such as a sapphire-encrusted turban and robe (for the company's Arabian Nights Scheherazade production) and a series of flowing skirts and burkhas (in reference to DTH's Dougla production which was choreographed by Geoffrey Holder). There are also four videos of famous ballets next to their pictures and set pieces: Firebird, Dougla, Creole Giselle and A Streetcar Named Desire. To be honest, a dance exhibition with only static images would be for naught, so these videos, featuring DTH dance greats such as Stephanie Dabney and Geoffrey Holder, provide a great look into the way the company reinvented and revolutionized ballet classics, particularly for those who've never had the pleasure of viewing a DTH production in person.

Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, with co-founder Karel Shook Tania Leon serving as musical director. Mitchell initially wanted to open up a dance school in Brazil, but after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the wake of the ensuing Civil Rights upheaval, he decided to keep the company in Harlem, New York. Starting with a few basketball players, who he convinced practicing ballet would improve their jump-shots, Mitchell grew DTH educational arm into an 800-member company student school.

More than a dance troupe, and more than a dance school (what Mitchell originally envisioned it to be), DTH was also a school of the performing arts, including music and drama into its practice; greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Gregory Hines scatted and tapped within its walls. From its official debut on January 9, 1971 to its 40-year celebration in February 2009, DTH has grown from neighborhood arts program to international phenomenon, with members from all over, including some from Houston.

Dwight Baxter, High School for the Performing and Visual Arts graduate, former DTH dancer and champion of Houston's African-American cultural and performing arts scene, was responsible for bringing the exhibit to Houston -- and to TSU.

"I felt it was very important that this exhibit be right here at TSU," Baxter said.

Baxter reminisced over the African-American cultural zeitgeist of the '60s and '70s that saw dance companies, charm schools and jazz ensembles springing up in many Black communities, including Houston's Third Ward. Unfortunately, said Baxter, these programs have gone missing.

You may not become a model, but you learned how to walk, said Baxter of these schools. Even if you weren't destined for dance immortality a la Judith Jamison, these schools "taught you poise."

Look no further than the looping video of Firebird, a ballet featuring Stephanie Dabney, whose graceful frame doesn't even remotely resemble the awkward flapping and clucking of barnyard birds; instead, decked out in a hot-red feathered leotard, she extends her arms and glides forward, swan-like.

"They taught discipline," he added.

Look to the various photo stills of company members standing in DTH's signature V-formation, or the then-and-now photographs featuring children and teenagers in practice bodysuits, a testament to the dedication not only put in by Mitchell and his employees, but the dancers themselves.

"The influences that I had are not the same as today," Baxter said. "We don't have the same type of culture around our children anymore."

Hence, his suggestion to museum curators Judy Tyrus and Barbara Cohen-Straytner that Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts make its way from stops at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the California African American Museum to TSU's museum doorstep.

"Oh, gosh," said Baxter. "We needed it." The exhibition will stay at TSU until April 28.

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