Interview with Virginia Johnson
Artistic Director; Dance Theatre of Harlem
April 30, 2014
-- by Jerry Hochman
In connection with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s recent New York season at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and in advance of its upcoming performances at the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, I interviewed Virginia Johnson, DTH’s Artistic Director, in her office at DTH’s studios on West 152nd Street.
As DTH’s leading ballerina, Ms. Johnson was known for her aura of serenity and lyricism, and for the clarity and precision of her execution. For someone like me who believes that stage personas are often indicative of a performing artist’s ‘real’ personality, it’s somewhat reassuring to see these same qualities when you meet her in person: a mellifluous vocal quality, the ability to articulate with simple precision, and a warm, unaffected demeanor. And like all dancers I’ve met, Virginia (she prefers to be called by her first name) seems to instinctively know to communicate comfortably with fawning fans and inquisitive interviewers. But her tranquil demeanor surprised me – her company had just completed its second New York season, was preparing for its upcoming tour, and I could hear her phone’s persistent ringtones as we spoke. But none of these pressures distracted her.
After taking care of some long overdue critical (and fawning fan) observations, and briefly referencing DTH’s upcoming tour, we began discussing where she believes DTH is now, and where she believes it’s headed in the future.
JH: When my wife heard that I’d be speaking with you, she wanted to make sure that I thanked you for your wonderful performance in “Giselle” (“Creole Giselle”), which we saw at its City Center premiere roughly 30 years ago.
VJ: [Smiling] Thank you.
It was a particularly important performance for me. I had been attending ballet for awhile, but until then had not recognized how a ballet classic could be significantly changed, and yet, with the right production and the right cast, still be true to the original. It opened my eyes, and prepared me to be receptive to subsequent productions I saw that modified the classics in a variety of ways.
I’m glad you were able to see it that way.
And congratulations on your New York season. Based on what I saw, I think it went very well.
Yes. We were pleased with it too.
And now you’re preparing the Company for its tour to Virginia, including performances at the Virginia Arts Festival from May 17-18. Do you have any connection with the Arts Festival that makes that engagement particularly important to you?
Yes, actually. This will be the second time we’ve been down there for the arts festival, and there’s a very strong arts education component to it. Earlier this year we did a week of arts education in Norfolk, and when we go back down for the festival we’ll be doing more arts education, including a performance for Norfolk area schools on the 17th. And for our third year, in addition to the continuing arts education component, we have a major commission from them that we’ll be performing.
And this year, we’ll be doing “Gloria” with a live symphony orchestra for the first time. We’re very excited about that.
Yes, I saw that. I wish I could get down there for it.
I wasn’t able to see DTH’s New York performances last year, but based on the two programs I saw this season, it seems to me that DTH may be trying to find its focus. By that I mean that I saw three different ‘types’ of pieces: classical ballet, contemporary ballet, and ballet with an African-American theme. First, do you think my understanding is right, and if it is, where do you see DTH proceeding from here?
You know, that’s a really good question. I think that we’re in a time where there’s a desire to categorize things very distinctly. But philosophically, DTH is about this art form of ballet and seeing that it is many things. So, as we’re working and as I put together programs, it is about mixing classical ballet with contemporary ballet. And a particular thrust is to bring African-American stories into the realm of ballet discussions.
I’ve heard from some people a sense of discomfort that we’re neither this nor that, but that’s on purpose. I think this narrowing of categories that’s so much a part of the world that we’re living in now is actually not good for society in general. We need to find the similarities in difference. So when you have a classical work next to a contemporary work, stylistically they’re very different, and expression-wise they’re very different, but there’s a common thread that goes between them. I want people to start honing in on what are the
things that we share in common, rather than always what make us different.
Do you see this multi-faceted approach continuing into the future?
[Emphatically] Absolutely. It’s my intention to continue to address the breadth of the art form rather than just narrowing us down to one particular kind of ballet or another. I do this in particular because I think that’s what the world needs, but it’s also fantastic for the dancers.
Do you feel they’re more comfortable doing classical ballet rather than contemporary, or more comfortable doing ballet with African American themes?
They are hungry to be challenged. Comfort isn’t something that we in the ballet world want to go to. The purpose of being in ballet is to do something that’s incredibly challenging and difficult and making it your own. I think some of them may have had more contemporary work than others, or some with more classical ballet work than others, but the idea of going to their comfort zone is not what we are about.
Yes. I thought exactly what you said as I watched certain of the dances DTH performed, particularly “Pas de Dix.” I thought it was intended as a challenge; to be a stretch. They were working hard, but to me, they got it. The men need a little bit of work [she laughs] but by and large they got it. I didn’t see it as comfort or not – I saw it as working hard to get it right.
Yes, yes. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this in print, but I’ll go ahead and say it. There may be an expectation that we are more comfortable in an African-American themed work or in a contemporary themed work, and less comfortable in the classical works. But that’s a notion that we at DTH are trying very hard to get out of the air. I think it’s an expectation that is not appropriate.
That brings me to another question relating to expectations. When DTH was formed the world was different…well, maybe not all that different, but lots of things have happened, particularly in ballet. In 1969, it was virtually unthinkable to have a black classical dancer – with certain very rare exceptions. Now it’s not unthinkable anymore. Maybe it’s not 50/50 [she laughs] – but it’s less rare than it was in 1969. And now there are outreach programs, either in place or that have been announced – I know by ABT, and think by NYCB as well. Given that, what’s the point of having a DTH now?
I’m thrilled that there are beginning to be more opportunities for dancers of color in other companies.
Dance Theatre of Harlem was never an exclusively black company. The idea that Mr. Mitchell had was to create a space where dancers who’d been denied the opportunity to dance this art form could begin to excel in it. What he wanted with DTH was to enable the world to see ballet in a different way. That’s still what we’re trying to do. We’re not an exclusively black company, and it isn’t a goal to create a separate but equal company in Harlem at all. We’re a culturally diverse company, and it really is our goal for people to look again at the art form.
And that goes back to your first question, that it may seem that we lack focus because we’re doing all kinds of different things. That is exactly the point I’m trying to make. We want people to understand that you don’t have to be classical or contemporary; it doesn’t have to have fairy tales or be abstract to work as subject matter. It can be very broad. To me, ballet is a language. Let’s use it. Let’s use it in any way that we can; in ways audiences may not be familiar with, or in ways that they’re extremely familiar with, but have it look a little bit different. Particularly in today’s global environment, we need to stop pigeon-holing.
I appreciate that. But does it concern you that now you may be losing dancers who you might have otherwise have gotten but for these outreach programs?
Oh no. I think that a talented dancer belongs in whatever company he or she belongs in. I don’t think that every black dancer needs to end up in DTH. That’s some sort of reverse segregation, isn’t it? [she laughs]
No, not at all. We want this art form to be the most magnificent thing in the world; that it continues to grow, to express and be part of the world we’re living in. I think it’s fantastic that ABT is finally making strides in this direction, and SAB. Other companies in cities across the country have been much more active about bringing in dancers of color, like North Carolina Ballet; Ballet West. So it’s not that I think all black dancers need to be with DTH. We need to have ballet look like the world we’re living in. We need to make sure we’re training as many people as we can, nurturing them, and giving them jobs. But no, I’m not hurt if someone isn’t coming to DTH. [laughs]
My understand is that you just lost a dancer to a major company?
Yes. Michaela DePrince recently went to Dutch National Ballet.
Are you concerned that there might be other – I don’t like to use the word but it’s the only one that comes to mind – defections?
[Laughs]. I view it as a positive. Dancers are individuals. They want to make something for themselves, build something for themselves. Dancers are only here for a minute. Michaela wanted to do a different rep. I think that’s wonderful. Again, I’m not trying to keep dancers here. I want people to be here because they believe in DTH and the kind of rep we’re doing. And if it doesn’t fit – don’t stay. [laughs again]. I don’t see it as a negative in other words.
Right now the choreographers who created the works performed in DTH’s New York season, except for “Pas de Dix,” were black. Do you foresee inviting white choreographers (I hate using that term)
Yes, it’s awkward isn’t it.
But it exists. You don’t need to step around it.
Do you foresee inviting white choreographers to create works for DTH?
Absolutely. [emphatically] This is my first job as an artistic director, and it’s been an amazing experience, and I’m learning so much as I go along. I think I went a little overboard at first; I put a lot of importance in certain things and maybe didn’t have as global a picture as I should have. So we ended up with choreographers mainly of color. We do have a piece choreographed by Helen Pickett – she’s a former dancer with William Forsyth (the Frankfurt Ballet), then became resident choreographer with Atlanta Ballet. She created a wonderful pas de deux, “When Love,” to the last aria in “Einstein on the Beach.”
I had two missions these first two years that I can probably relax on: giving choreographers of color a chance to choreograph, and looking for women choreographers. So Helen is white – but she’s a woman. [laughs]
So now you don’t see that as an exclusive mission?
I don’t. I’m in talks with a couple of people right now. But things take so much time. One of the things I love about this job is that I spend 5 plus hours a day with our dancers in the studio, and then I sit in my office and do the other work that has to get done.
You mention spending time with dancers in the studio, and that brings up another subject area. Based on what I saw, your dancers are by and large very accomplished. There’s work to be done, of course, but that’s true with any company. But my understanding is that you found and trained the Company’s dancers basically from scratch. Is that true?
No, not wholly. In 2008, Mr. Mitchell, Keith Saunders, who’s now our ballet master, and Laveen Naidu, who’s now our executive director, put together a group called the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble. They were a group of about sixteen dancers at the top of the school. They started putting repertory on them, and the Ensemble started doing lecture demonstrations and educational activities, and then they eventually started doing what we called interactive performances – a combination of lecture demonstrations and repertoire. And they took that group on tour – first in the Northeast area, and then on more extensive tours, including some very exciting tours in the South, to small communities. They presented the face of DTH to many people, especially to many audiences who had never seen ballet, but this was the beginning of bringing DTH back to the world. And at the same time, we began working as a group toward becoming the company that would eventually be the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company. So it was like a training program for them. This lasted about 3 years. Of the 18 dancers with the company now, six are from that program. They formed the nucleus of the DTH Company.
You know, you don’t just go from a student to being a professional. You have to have that stepping stone. That gave us a base. We also took two dancers from the school into the company, and we also had auditions around the country (Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and New York). We had open calls and people came and auditioned for us. So it was a combination of things that we put together.
But back to your question – yes it was a little bit from scratch because in August 2012, we put 18 people in a studio who had mostly never danced together and began teaching them rep. And our first performances were in October, 2012. So it’s been a very accelerated period, but, you know, economic necessity…
Is there anything you can tell me now about what you have planned for the future?
Well, I can tell you that we’ll continue to have classical works, and we’ll continue to have contemporary works. And the African-American themed works are important to me. This isn’t the Civil Rights era by any way, shape or form. But parts of our experience in this country we can bring to the stage and can be shared with people because it’s part of our cultural heritage. Not because it’s black culture or white culture, but because it’s American culture. We should be talking across our boundaries.
And people love it when we’re on tour. The presenters say that’s the only time they get diverse audiences. They bring theater companies, ballet companies, and the audiences are primarily white, or the Ailey Company and the audience is primarily black, but DTH is the only one where they get a crossover audience – people who want to see ballet, and people who want to see African Americans dance ballet. It’s a very dynamic mix. And it’s so true. I’m in the audience, and the reaction is so different. People say ‘oh, I didn’t expect this.’ And it’s exciting.
I’m smiling about what you said, because when I watched ‘past-carry-forward’ – I had some problems with it structurally, but in terms of the ideas, what was shown in the segments of it – I marveled at the universality of it.
Good; good good.
And what you’re saying fits with that exactly.
You mentioned the Ailey Company. Aside from the fact that DTH is classical ballet and the Ailey Company isn’t, do you see differences between the two?
Well, they’re way more successful than we are right now. [laughs] That’s a big one…but we’ll get there. I don’t actually see differences. The Ailey Company isn’t just about black culture either, you know. But once again people pigeon-hole. It’s made up of fantastic dancers, and a wonderful repertoire, and Robert Battle is broadening the Ailey experience beautifully.
I think the only real difference is that Ailey is based on modern dance and the impetus goes into the ground, and it’s about being grounded; and for us, as a ballet company, we’re aspiring to fly, to defy gravity. Those are two very valid expressions of humanity. And I wouldn’t want to say that one is more important than the other. They’re different. Human beings are different. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, or where you came from, or what art form you’re delving into. The differences are there – we’re not trying to erase that, we should celebrate that.
Do you feel in competition with the Ailey Company?
I have never felt that. Now talk to folks outside, and they say you’re both black companies; then there’s competition. I don’t see that. I see we’re saying different things about what it is to experience art. It annoys me when people say ‘why should there be two companies?’ We’re not the same. Why do we have New York City Ballet and ABT? They’re not doing the same thing at all – even when they do the same ballets. [laughs] I should bring that up when people talk about Ailey and DTH. Because it’s a similar dissimilarity.
You were known as a lyrical dancer. And I understand that Mr. Mitchell’s focus was neo-classical. Do you see these two approaches, lyrical and neo-classical, continuing as well?
That’s a good question. I think it’s very important that we work against type. I came up from a Vaganova school [Washington School of Ballet] and I was, at least temperamentally, a lyrical dancer. And in those early years it was very hard for me to live in this neoclassical world. Very hard. But I grew up as an artist to have to learn that. And I did do those neoclassical works – Agon, Four T’s, and all that – I may not have been great in them, but I had to do them and learn what that was.
And I want these dancers to be confronted with having to do something that they may not feel naturally comfortable with, and how to figure out how to make it something that they can do. I don’t think you come into this art form to be a star dancing what you’re good at. I think you come into this art form and test yourself by putting yourself to the fire of this very rigorous form. And you’re doing this because you want the biggest challenge and you want to find out how to make that challenge ‘true’. So I want DTH to be a dynamic, expressive company. As I said before, we want to encompass many expressions, classical and contemporary, in our work. It takes time – this is only our second year – it’s taking time, and people are impatient, but it doesn’t happen overnight. But we’re doing it, and getting stronger.
This brings the discussion full circle – but do you see anywhere on the horizon DTH reviving “Creole Giselle”?
Oh my god yes. But [sighs] we’re going to be 50 in 2019 – and we’re not going to be able to do “Giselle” in 2019. We might be able to do “Firebird,” but we can’t do “Giselle.” And the main reason “Giselle” can’t come in 2019 – unless we get miraculous financial backing [laughs] is we can’t do it with the sets and costumes, even if we had the number of dancers we needed to cast it. Our costumes are checked on the plane with our luggage; we have no scenery at all. When we go to a theater, we use the lights that are there.
When DTH closed in 2004, we travelled with three semis. We put our costumes there, our sets, a dance floor, a light board…it was a deluxe, A-1 class touring machine – that nobody could afford to book. When we decided to bring the company back, we had to determine what was the right size for the Company, and what kind of touring we could actually do. We crunched the numbers, and created models - it’s very dicey. The amount of money it costs to put on a performance; the amount of money a presenter can afford to pay; the ticket prices he can charge….it’s a very finely tuned set of numbers.
I’d love to bring “Giselle” back, but we can’t afford it right now. But down the pike, if the world changes….
With that, I let Virginia deal with all those unanswered phone calls and the other pressures of running a company. We thanked each other for our time and interest, and I left believing that DTH’s Fiftieth Anniversary would be a fine occasion for the world to change just a little bit more.