YEPAW celebrates milestone with Dance Theatre of Harlem performance

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at the Akron Civic Theatre Feb. 11. Anthony Savoy, Chystyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence in Agon. (Christopher Duggan)

Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop, an Akron organization founded to harness the power of the arts to make a difference in young people’s lives, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a performance by Dance Theatre of Harlem, a ballet company that shares its mission.

Founded by Arthur Mitchell in 1969, it has a three-pronged mission that includes presenting a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality. Along with that, the organization runs a school that trains young people in classical ballet and allied arts, and also operates an extensive community outreach program.

“We have a tremendous impact on our local community of Harlem through our community outreach program, and we also have a school that has trained dancers to go into all kinds of fields — classical ballet, Broadway, musical theater … It’s a very important part of what Arthur Mitchell’s vision was from the beginning, which was to use the arts to transform lives,” said Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, a founding member and former principal dancer with the company.

Akron audiences will have the opportunity to enjoy Dance Theatre of Harlem’s artistic excellence with YEPAW’s 25th anniversary celebration at 8 p.m. Tuesday, when the company will offer a single performance at the Akron Civic Theatre. The program will include four neoclassical and contemporary ballet works ranging from George Balanchine’s 1957 Agon to the contemporary Far But Close by Canadian choreographer John Alleyne.

Recent rebirth

Dance Theatre of Harlem has undergone a recent rebirth, restarting its professional performing company in October 2012. In 2004 the decision was made to put the performing company on hold in order to save the organization financially and keep its educational and outreach components intact. Today, DTH runs community programs, summer intensives, a pre-professional program for local youth and a professional trainee program for students from all over the world that Johnson refers to as a “finishing school.”

Johnson, who danced with the company for more than 27 years, created the magazine Pointe and served as editor in chief for nine years before returning to DTH in 2010 when Mitchell retired as founding artistic director. She now leads the new Dance Theatre of Harlem, composed of 18 dancers.

“I’m so excited to be working with this generation of dancers in this new company,” she said by phone Jan. 30 from Irving, Texas.

She spoke the day before Dance Theatre of Harlem left for a State Department-sponsored tour in Honduras, where they spent a week doing performances and arts education.

The company’s goal is to broaden people’s perceptions of what ballet is by performing works spanning multiple eras of American and dance history.

“It’s a codified system that’s got rigorous standards, but you’re really using the body in a particular way, and you can tell many different stories using the ballet language in these different styles, and that’s what the program is about,” she said. “It’s about giving an audience many different viewpoints of what this language of ballet can do.”

A repertoire staple

Agon, a staple of the company’s repertoire, includes an iconic pas de deux that Balanchine created in 1957 for DTH founder Mitchell and ballerina Diane Adams when they danced with the New York City Ballet. Johnson, who danced Agon in 1972, said she is excited to do one of Balanchine’s most notable ballets with a new generation of dancers.

DTH also will perform the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake. It is one of the world’s most enduring classical ballets by Marius Petipa and Nicholas Sergeyev, set to the music of Tchaikovsky. Anna-Marie Holmes staged the piece in 2012 for DTH after the choreography of Petipa and Sergeyev. She learned the role of the Black Swan in St. Petersburg from great Kirov ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya.

Rounding out the program will be Alleyne’s Far But Close and Robert Garland’s Return. Far But Close uses dance, music by violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and spoken word by Daniel Beaty to tell the story of a young man and woman who meet on a subway and fall in love. DTH commissioned the narrative dance, based on a short play, in 2012.

Finally, DTH resident choreographer Garland offers Return, which blends the elegance of classical ballet with the gritty drive of soul music, with songs from Aretha Franklin to James Brown. The work premiered in 1999 for the company’s 30th anniversary celebration.

Blending classical ballet with popular music and sassy costumes in Return fits into DTH’s goal of connecting with the public and broadening perceptions about ballet.

“It’s really very exciting when we come into a city and people are thinking that we’re just gonna be coming in tutus, and we’re so much more than that,” Johnson said.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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