Entertainment

Dance Theatre of Harlem coming to Charlotte, onstage and backstage

Anthony Savoy and Stephanie Williams perform in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “Return.”
Anthony Savoy and Stephanie Williams perform in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “Return.” Matthew Murphy

The life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been explored in films, plays, symphonic works and at least one opera, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired a ballet. Instead, it inspired a ballet company: Dance Theatre of Harlem, which sprang into being in 1969, the year after King’s assassination.

So it’s fitting that DTH will make its first-ever appearance in Charlotte next January, during the week we celebrate MLK Day.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture and Blumenthal Performing Arts will host the world’s first black classical ballet company with four public performances, an exhibit about the company’s first four decades, workshops, master classes and more. Wells Fargo will give tickets to 1,200 low-income dance-goers who might never see the company any other way.

Much remains to be decided about the week-long appearance. Performances run Jan. 22-24 at Knight Theater, and the troupe will dance one or two school shows. The touring exhibit at the Gantt will open in January and run through June, but exact dates haven’t been set. Community events have yet to be worked out. The repertoire probably won’t be announced until fall, though tickets are on sale now.

But one thing’s certain: Bringing the internationally known company to Charlotte benefits the city at various levels.

Out-of-towners may drive in that week to spend money on meals, tickets and lodging. Local dance fans will see work that has never been done here and learn the history of the group created by New York City Ballet alumnus Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, first teacher and ballet master of the Dutch National Ballet.

And little kids who never knew ballet existed may see something that inspires a grand jeté in their own lives.

“If we bring this great dance company here, and only those who can afford a relatively high ticket price can come, we have failed,” says Blumenthal president and CEO Tom Gabbard. “This can be an aspirational moment. When you see a dancer of color onstage, someone who looks like you, the impact that makes can be a lifelong thing.”

This project has come together swiftly. Gantt president and CEO David Taylor says Gabbard suggested a collaboration in February; Wells Fargo, which was already talking to the center about its Gantt Symposium, soon put in its oar.

“We challenge nonprofits to collaborate and think big,” says Jay Everette, Wells’ community affairs manager. He said Wells’ support for DTH events will be “in the low six figures, one of our most significant investments for 2016 in this community.” Wells Fargo Foundation has a history of providing dance tickets to people who wouldn’t ordinarily go: When Martha Graham Dance Company came to the Knight two years ago, Wells paid for a performance aimed at first-time audience members.

Though the city has never seen DTH in action, it has seen DTH dancers. Charlotte Ballet formed a partnership in 2013 with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Professional Program; DTH graduates Rickey Flagg II and Courtney Holland now dance with Charlotte Ballet II.

DTH has lately experienced a renaissance. In 2004, when it faced a debt of about $2.3 million, it had to shut down its 44-member professional company. It began to perform again in 2013 and now maintains a company of 18.

In the old days, it performed larger pieces such as “Creole Giselle” and “The Firebird,” artifacts of which will be seen in the dance exhibit. Its new, scaled-back company performed at New York’s City Center in April and did smaller pieces by the likes of Nacho Duato, George Balanchine and Darrell Grand Moultrie.

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