(Dance Theatre of Harlem Company in Sounds of Hazel. Photo by Jeff Cravotta)

By Jerome Langston

“He taught me that it’s bigger than the art. It’s about people,” says Robert Garland, the new artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), referring to the legendary ballet company’s founder, the great Arthur Mitchell. It’s a sunny afternoon today, and Garland, who is in New York City, of course, is chatting with me by phone. Many years ago, Mitchell appointed Garland to the position of resident choreographer, a first of its kind position for DTH. Mr. Mitchell also made Garland, Director of the Professional Training program of the DTH school.

“That was where my big lesson came. That is where I learned everything that I needed to do, to move forward — not just in an artistic role, but in a leadership role,” Garland says. “As a dancer, you don’t really get to know what a development director really is… but you want scholarships,” he adds, with a slight chuckle. Mr. Mitchell, who passed away in 2018, at the age of 84, clearly knew that Garland was eventually destined for an even bigger role with the company.

Back in February, the New York Times published a wonderful preview of Garland’s first season as artistic director, helming DTH’s upcoming 55th anniversary season at New York City Center. Well now, that season begins next week, on April 11th.  I ask Garland how it’s going in his new role, which officially began on July 1st. “We’re preparing for our City Center season here in New York, our New York season. So that’s a great thing,” he says. “It’s my first season in New York (as artistic director). A lot of the repertory that I’m bringing to the Virginia Arts Festival will be the same repertory, so they’re getting the same treatment as we’re giving people in New York,” he tells me. “And it’s just going really well.”

Next month, just about three weeks following DTH’s City Center season, the iconic ballet company will head to Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, for three performances as part of our Virginia Arts Festival’s (VAF) annual spring season of high caliber arts events. The VAF season includes jazz concerts, classical music performances, theatrical events, dance performances, and much more — with some highly popular events, now running well into June. “In Virginia, we’re coming ahead of time to do a lot of educational activities,” Garland adds.

The last time DTH came down to Norfolk for its VAF performances, the legendary Virginia Johnson, was still its artistic director. Virginia is widely known in the dance world, as leading the company out of its financial valley of hardships, and thus helping to restore it to its rightful place, as one of the country’s most elite and successful professional ballet companies. Garland has known Virginia for many years, and upon her desire to retire, she asked him to take on the prestigious role that she had filled for over a decade. I ask him if she passed on any advice.

“I created a lot of work on Virginia… when she was still dancing, because of her steadfastness, her commitment, and her sense of community,” Garland states. “She was our role model as a leader, even when she was dancing. So when she came to be artistic director, those same lessons applied.” He adds, “She led as an artistic director, the same way she led as a ballerina.”

Late last month, Norfolk’s own, the great Lorraine Graves, passed away at 66. Ms. Graves broke multiple barriers in the world of ballet, and of course, thrilled audiences as principal dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem, for two decades. She also served, while dancing, in the highly esteemed role of Ballet Mistress. I first met Ms. Graves back in 2019, while working on a magazine feature about Dance Theatre of Harlem. She so impressed me with her grace, intelligence and poise. During DTH’s time here for VAF that year, they honored her, for her contributions to the larger world of dance, and as a Norfolk native. I’ve heard that the festival is working on some form of tribute — during DTH’s upcoming performances here at Chrysler Hall. Garland knew Lorraine well.

“Lorraine, of course was a ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem company, for many years. What a lot of people…don’t know, is that she was also a ballet rehearsal master, during that time. Arthur Mitchell entrusted her with rehearsing the company, and that is because she had a photographic memory, and she had a beautiful understanding of how the art worked.” Garland says that her passing was an emotional blow to the company, and that the dancers were looking forward to performing for a Norfolk audience that included Ms. Graves.

The company will present some of their remarkable, newer work here in Norfolk, during their three performances. “Higher Ground,” which is set to the seventies soul music of Stevie Wonder, was choreographed by Garland, and reflects how he was feeling about America, around 2019, when he first put it together, but then the pandemic postponed it. I talked to DTH dancer, Derek Brockington, a couple days following my chat with Garland. A Chicago native, he is in his sixth season with the professional company. Derek is featured in “Higher Ground,” as well as in William Forsythe’s “Blake Works IV (The Barre Project).” I asked him what it’s been like, now working with Garland as the company’s AD. “It’s been really awesome working with Mr. Garland,” says Derek. “It’s such a new experience. He’s very different than Virginia, but I think the things that he’s really good at, are exactly what we need now.” He goes on to say that Garland has a good eye for artistry and technique, and that he values them not only as dancers, but as people.

This will be Garland’s first time working with VAF in his current role of artistic director, but he’s worked with Rob Cross and others before, through the educational work that he performed here for VAF, when serving as DTH’s resident choreographer. He also premiered a couple of ballets here, “Gloria” and “Brahms Variations,” in Norfolk, for the arts festival. He looks forward to working with VAF again, coming down to Norfolk, and he even gives a shout out to the Virginia Symphony. “And I love that orchestra.”   



Dance Theatre of Harlem

Presented by Virginia Arts Festival

May 3-5, Chrysler Hall

April 30, Ferguson Center for the Arts