Looking Back, Looking Forward
Written by Judy Tyrus
I have been a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) for thirty years. Starting as an apprentice, I later held the position of principal dancer with the company, touring for twenty-two exhilarating years. My work as dancer, alumni liaison, in-house photographer, exhibition curator, and archivist has made me a passionate artist and advocate for the arts.
In 2008, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center approached DTH to create an exhibition celebrating the company’s fortieth anniversary. Arthur Mitchell, DTH Co-founder and Artistic Director asked me to curate the exhibition. Intimidated by the scope of the project, I was uneasy but honored. I remember Mr. M saying, “You are a principal dancer. You have done much harder things than that. Of course, you can do it.”
Mr. Mitchell’s encouragement set the stage for months of organization, research, culling, and writing. Dance Theatre of Harlem owns an unmatched and extensive ballet archive with thousands of photographs, hundreds of costumes, a basement full of artifacts, and nearly half a century of irreplaceable documents held within it. Exploring this treasure trove to encapsulate the story of a multicultural company and school while highlighting the artists, plus exposing the rigor of classical ballet, was in a word – challenging.
On February 11, 2009, Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts opened in the Vincent Astor Gallery at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the organization’s founding. The inaugural exhibition featured works by visual artist Frank Bara; costume designers Carl Michel, Zelda Wynn; and the New York City Chapter of Women of Color Quilters, amongst many others. It also contained original set pieces and costumes from four iconic DTH ballets: John Taras’ Firebird; Valerie Bettis’ A Streetcar Named Desire; DTH’s own Creole Giselle; and Geoffrey Holder’s masterwork Dougla, which was revived and performed during the Company’s recent  New York City season.
The second installation of the exhibition was initiated in 2010 by the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles, CA. The show attracted 33,000 visitors, and its success prompted CAAM to prepare the exhibit to tour. A bonus of this unique partnership was that it was led by DTH alum Charmaine Jefferson, and Woody Schofield, who were CAAM directors at the time.
From 2009-2018, 40 Years of Firsts toured nationally to twelve venues, with an audience of over 105,000 people experiencing the exhibition. In several cities, we coordinated DTH company performances with the opening of the exhibition to provide audiences with the opportunity to engage Dance Theatre of Harlem’s history before or after seeing the performance. In addition, public programming organized by the exhibition venues which featured presentations and interviews with amazing guest speakers, often including Company members.
As archivist and curator, I traveled with the 40 Years of Firsts to manage the installations and witnessed firsthand the exhibition’s impact, especially on young people. At one of our opening receptions, I overheard a young girl say in a very animated way, “I didn’t know there were black ballerinas!” before twirling to the next part of the exhibit. I smiled and thought that was a perfect response.
It was an honor for me to interact with so many amazing curators, installers, and volunteers in cities across the United States including New York City; Los Angeles, CA; Detroit, MI; Irving, TX, Houston, TX; Saratoga Springs, NY; Fort Wayne, IN; Baltimore, MD; Charlotte, North Carolina; Seattle, WA; Jacksonville, FL and Belton, TX.
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s impending 50th Anniversary is a historic moment. This extraordinary milestone gives us the opportunity to tell our current story in dynamically new ways. Using virtual and augmented reality, mobile apps, new and developing technologies, and our own archival materials will allow us to expand and extend the audience experience while honoring the legacy of DTH.
I celebrate Dance Theatre of Harlem, its brilliant past, electrifying present, and glorious future.