The Dance Theatre of Harlem makes a comeback with star-studded fundraiser

theGRIO REPORT - The Dance Theatre of Harlem's Vision Gala reinforced the esteemed dance company's vow to return after an eight-year hiatus...

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The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Vision Gala reinforced the esteemed dance company’s vow to return after an eight-year hiatus and honored legendary activist Harry Belafonte.

Two hundred fifty guests attended the black tie affair at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan on February 28. Dancers, actors, financiers and supporters of the company from all walks of life paid between $1,000 and $25,000 to partake in the gala fundraiser. Attendees were treated to two dance performances and gift bags stuffed with goodies from event sponsors.

Monetary woes forced the professional touring arm of the Dance Theatre of Harlem to go on hiatus in 2004, so the evening’s event was important not only for raising awareness about the company’s work, but also for funding the new smaller, streamlined operation set to debut in the fall of 2012.

Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 in a garage. The company grew quickly into an internationally renowned institution and became a haven for black ballet dancers who found it difficult to find positions within older, more established, mainstream dance companies. When DTH’s professional company suspended operations in 2004, the performance arm of the school (the DTH Ensemble) continued to perform and still does to this day.

Ballerina Misty Copeland, currently American Ballet Theatre’s only black female soloist, was on hand for the event. Copeland has been a strong advocate of DTH for years and has a strong relationship with Virginia Johnson, the company’s artistic director. “It’s been rough without them. I know young black dancers have had a tough time trying to find a job. They’ve been in no man’s land. The Dance Theatre of Harlem is the only well-known, established, African-American, classical ballet company in the world. We need them and we need to support them,” said Copeland, a Grio 100 honoree.

Emmy award-winning actress Lynn Whitfield had the honor of introducing Harry Belafonte and she expressed her thoughts on why even in troubled economic times, “Art is important for cultural stability. These tough economic times won’t always be here, but our culture will, so we have to support institutions like the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Until we can get the National Endowment of the Arts back on track funding initiatives like this, we just have to make it work,” said Whitfield, who at one time entertained thoughts of becoming a ballerina herself.

The man of the hour — noted actor, singer and activist Harry Belafonte — addressed the crowd in his trademark raspy voice and was full of funny stories, gratitude and words of appreciation for DTH’s founder Arthur Mitchell. Belafonte recalled hiring Mitchell, who was then a young dancer/choreographer for a television special in the 1950s. The dance Mitchell choreographed involved black, white and Asian dancers and sponsors were unhappy. Belafonte was told to cut that portion from the broadcast. He did not and he was fired. “I would like to thank Arthur Mitchell for getting me fired,” quipped the 85-year-old Hollywood legend. The Harlem-born Belafonte has a long history of political and civil rights activism. That moment of bravery was just one of many in his life.

CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien, acknowledged that fundraising in today’s rocky economic and political climates is tough, but necessary. ” When people think of art, they think of something frivolous and that’s not accurate. Supporting the Dance Theatre of Harlem is about supporting opportunity. Like what Mr. Belafonte was saying about a sponsor shutting down a broadcast because of interracial performances, that’s an important thing. This matters. Kids need opportunity,” O’Brien said.

Jessye Norman, soprano opera singer and DTH board of trustees member, summed up the matter. “The Dance Theatre of Harlem has impacted generations of dancers and we are very proud of our past accomplishments and our continued work. The arts reflect and impact everything we do in life. They are so important.”

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