WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the lights came up on the final company to perform in "Ballet Across America," the Kennedy Center's showcase of nine regional troupes from across the country, there was a burst of ecstatic applause before any of the dancers had taken even a single step.
It was a sign of America's enduring love for the country's first African American ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is making a comeback after eight years on hiatus due to a more than $2 million debt.
While it has shrunk from 44 dancers to a mere 18, all but two of whom are new, the company showed it has lost none of the unique hybrid style and technical sophistication that earned it a following from the moment of its founding, by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell, in 1969.
Performing resident choreographer Robert Garland's 13-year-old "Return" to the feel-good music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, DTH easily stole the limelight from North Carolina Dance Theatre and Ballet Austin, the other companies on the final bill of this ballet sampler, in which the Sarasota Ballet also participated.
In a discussion among the three companies' artistic directors following the performance, former DTH principal dancer Virginia Johnson, charged by Mitchell himself with resurrecting the company, called it "a very exciting moment in history" for the 44-year-old troupe.
"This is the new Dance Theatre of Harlem," said Johnson, who returned in 2010 to the company and its school, which remained in operation over the hiatus. "It's brand new, but everyone understands the legacy and what it means to preserve this work."
When the company stopped touring in 2004, Johnson said the pause was intended to last only for a matter of months. However, given economic recession and the ongoing challenge of funding dance these days, the closure stretched to eight years.
Now revived, with almost the entire administrative staff made up of former DTH dancers, it has renewed its commitment to the distinct blend of classical ballet and African American cultural dance that earned it renown.
It also remains committed to being a company that tours extensively. That means the troupe will remain much smaller than in past years for at least the next two to three years, Johnson said.
"It's important that we are a touring company because we have an important message to deliver," she said. "We want to bring people into this world and make them understand that ballet comes in many different styles, shapes and colors, so people can relate what's happening on stage to their own lives."
Because of its limited size, the company will not perform some of the larger-scaled story ballets in its past repertoire, such as an original "Firebird" and "Giselle." But its commmitment to its lineage of classical ballet and to the "energy, direction, vitality and precision" George Balanchine introduced to the art form at New York City Ballet will continue to be a directional force.
"That's what's always been behind Dance Theatre of Harlem," she said. It is also what distinguishes DTH from America's other premiere African-American dance company, Alvin Ailey, which is a modern-based troupe.
The company's spirited rendition of the fittingly-titled "Return," proved that it is possible to be funky, even in a pair of pointe shoes. Da'Von Doane as the soloist in the "Superbad" section was exactly that, his athleticism and classic lines surpassed only by his organic street dance moves.
North Carolina Dance Theatre, 43 years old itself and, for the past 17 years under the direction of former NYCB dancer Jean Pierre Bonnefoux, contributed an "everything but the kitchen sink" bonanza in "Rhapsodic Dances," former NCDT dancer Sasha Jane's marathon of classical moves by dancers in jewel-colored traditional tutus and tights.
Ballet Austin, founded 53 years ago, performed "Hush," by Artistic Director Stephen Mills, to the music of Philip Glass. The quietly impactful piece lived up to its name with sombre blue-toned lighting and costumes, lots of adagio movement and an emphasis on sliding and gliding.
But the standing ovation was reserved for DTH and its welcome return to the American dance menagerie.
BALLET ACROSS AMERICA, Dance Theatre of Harlem, North Carolina Dance Theatre and Ballet Austin. Reviewed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on June 7.