This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

The Day After

For thirteen years, from 2011 until this summer of 2023, Virginia Johnson was Dance Theatre of Harlem’s artistic director. She began her tenure before there was even a company to direct. In 2004 the ensemble that she joined in 1969, the year Arthur Mitchell formed the company, had been forced to go on hiatus because of serious financial problems. The question of whether it would get back on its feet was a real and agonizing one. And then in 2010, Mitchell, her mentor, asked her to lead the effort to bring it back. It was not a project she had sought out, or that she craved. But it was impossible not to accept the challenge. The company, which Mitchell had created in response to Martin Luther King’s assassination, was too important not to save.

Virginia Johnson and Eddie J. Shellman in “Creole Giselle.” Photograph courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

subscribe to the latest in dance


“Uncommonly intelligent, substantial coverage.”

  • Weekly articles from the world of dance
  • Wide diversity of reviews, interviews, articles & more
  • Support for quality art journalism

Already a paid subscriber? Login

Johnson is intimately aware of why DTH, a ballet ensemble for whom diversity and opportunity are at the very core of its mission rather than a peripheral aspiration, is an essential part of the American dance landscape. When she attended the Washington School of Ballet in the sixties, she was the only Black student. And when she graduated, in 1968, her teacher, Mary Day, expressed doubts about whether she would be able to get a job at any American ballet company. It was Arthur Mitchell who created a place where it would be possible for her to dance. He opened the door. And Johnson stepped through it to become one of the great American ballerinas. 

After a long dancing career, she did other things: she went to college and became the founding editor of Pointe magazine. And then, when the time came, she returned to DTH. In the last decade, under her tutelage, the new company has blossomed, rising to a new level of artistic excellence and institutional stability. During the pandemic, the company’s filmed rendition of Robert Garland’s “New Bach,” set in locations around Harlem, became one of the period’s few moments of light. And during the company’s most recent season at City Center, the New York Times reviewer Brian Seibert wrote that the dancers were “all radiance, sparkle and joy flowing from sure technique.” Seeing the dancers’ sense of assurance and joy onstage, Johnson felt ready to move on, once again. She leaves the company in the hands of Robert Garland, a choreographer who, like Johnson, was mentored and encouraged by Arthur Mitchell. At the end of June, she retired.

Johnson and I spoke not long after, as she was just beginning to reflect on the past decade.

Virginia Johnson. Photograph by Theik Smith

Congratulations on your 13 fruitful years at Dance Theatre of Harlem. How do you feel?

Friday [June 30] was my last day. I’ve started unpeeling all the layers. And it’s been fascinating, realizing how many layers there were and how constricting that job was. I mean, I had a wonderful time. And I’m so thrilled that we have a company and that things are going well. Robert Garland is really the right person to take the dancers to the next place. There’s nothing negative. That said, I had to put myself into a pretzel to do that job, and I wasn’t even aware of it. We talk about how humans compartmentalize, and I’m having the physical experience of what that means. 

You came in at such a crucial moment—the company had been on hiatus, and you had to bring it back.

We needed a company. I think I’ve said this in every interview: This was not something I wanted to do. Every pore in my body was screaming no! But it was necessary, and there was no way I could say no. However, I had no idea what it would be like to be an artistic director; I had no idea what it was to make a company. 

You had already helped to start a magazine, Pointe, in 2000.

Absolutely, and I think that if it hadn’t been for my experience at Pointe, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would have been too overwhelmed. That said, my experience at Pointe was like heaven. Julie Davis and Michael Weisskopf wanted to create a ballet magazine, and they had the machinery and they had the support. But they didn’t know anything about ballet. So they really needed me to say what it should be. And then they taught me how to do it. I got a chance to look at the field not as a performer but as someone who is looking at everything that is happening, and who does what, and how does it work, and what’s working over there and what’s not.

Virginia Johnson in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photograph by Toby McAfee

So you were able to develop a bird’s eye view of the field. That must have been useful when you were called upon to bring back DTH.

Yes, it helped me understand what we needed to start doing to get a company back. We had wonderful consultants. Arthur Mitchell had decided he was going to step down. And he said, “I’m only going to step down if Virginia takes over.” There was that. The funding community stepped up and said, we’ll do this. We’ll give you X amount of time, we’ll give you this consultant. Now figure out what’s needed to put it all together. 

Are you referring to the finances?

The whole idea of restarting a touring company. DTH has this three-part mission. It’s a company, it’s a school, it’s community engagement. All of these things needed to be figured out in order to make it work in a way that was sustainable. We spent two years building that up and then we started the company. It helped me be in a place where I would not flounder immediately. But it was hard. You spend your day in the studio and it’s wonderful and interesting. And then you go to your office, and there are all the emails and all the planning and all the things you have to do, so you spend another eight hours on that. It’s non-stop.

Did you always feel, in your time there, that the momentum was moving forward?

It was very exciting when we actually had the company in the studio, to see this new generation of dancers, and see their flaws, and see their commitment to being the best dancers, and see what I could do to help them move in that direction. It was tremendously exciting to be in that place of “now we’re building something.” Figuring out rep and seeing what was going to work for these dancers. There were definitely stumbles, but once we got to that part, things moved faster and it was more fun. 

Virginia Johnson and Lowell Smith in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Photograph courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

What sorts of roadblocks did you encounter?

We spent all this time making a business plan, and then in 2014 we were out of money and realized it wasn’t working. So I thought, “We can’t fail again. What do we need to do?” That’s when the Ford Foundation had Anna Glass come in to do an assessment. [Glass subsequently became DTH’s executive director.] And we had [former executive director of Alvin Ailey] Sharon Luckman punching numbers and doing books. She knew what worked and what didn’t work, where we could save money, and where we needed to put our money so we could do things.

What was the key thing that needed to be done?

We had started with 18 dancers, and then in 2014–2015, we went down to 14 dancers. We shrank the budget to make it work. It seems simple but it’s hard to do. One of the things that uses up a lot of the money for touring companies is airfare, hotels, per diem for the people on the road; all of those things have to be balanced against what the presenters are willing to pay you in fees. We had a very big mismatch between what we were spending to produce shows and what presenters could afford to pay us. The gap made things worse and worse. And what was really damaging was that we didn’t have money to grow the rep. So that created stagnation. It was a very difficult period. You cannot do this business without losing money. Companies who don’t tour don’t have these pressures. And since 2010 we’ve not been allowed to have a deficit. Some of the larger companies have deficits as large as our whole budget. So we’re not on a level playing field at all. 

Why is that? 

Some institutions are allowed to have deficits, but at DTH, because we stumbled so badly before, the board and the funders agreed that they weren’t going to see us spiral down again. We’ve always known that ballet companies are struggling. I think that as an African American organization, people look at us harder. 

Virginia Johnson and Lorraine Graves in “Creole Giselle.” Photograph courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Do you feel that this limitation hampers the company artistically?

It would be easy for me to say yes. But I think that that’s not where the problem is. I think it’s about the way that we look at the arts in this country. The problem is that we have this system where if you’re going to be making money, you also want your expenses to be contained. And when your expenses are directly affecting your product and at the same time you’re not creating something that people want to spend money on, then you’re in a very bad situation. I think that we should be investing in the arts, investing in our repertoire, investing in our artists, in what we present to the public, at a level that enables us to create magic.

So the system does not really pay for big ideas or risks.

You say to your choreographer, “Okay, I’m commissioning you to do the work, and you have 40 hours to do this work, and we’ll pay you royalties, etc., etc.” Then it becomes a commodity that your company has to amortize over time. Art shouldn’t have to be a durable object that lasts over time.  Because if you’re creating something that makes somebody want to go to see a ballet performance in 2023, that means it’s going to be something that lifts them up and speaks to them in a very direct and personal way. Then it’s not durable, because times change and we need something that’s going to speak to them next year, too. But we haven’t built a system for that. 

This is an excerpt of an interview published in Fjord Review 6.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

comments

Featured

REVIEWS | Rachel Howard

Level Up

Sacramento Ballet executive and artistic director Anthony Krutzkamp dresses sharp and gives a memorable pre-curtain speech. The way he tells it, the Central California company was in rehearsals for “Swan Lake” last year when he realized he faced an enviable problem: the dancers were too good for the ballets he’d programmed under a five-year plan. 

Continue Reading
They Were There
BOOKSHELF | Candice Thompson

They Were There

In her new  biography, The Swans of Harlem, journalist Karen Valby is witness to the testimony of five pioneering Black ballerinas intimate with the founding history of Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

Continue Reading
The Joy of Dance
INTERVIEWS | Victoria Looseleaf

The Joy of Dance

If one wants a glimpse of Joy Womack’s rock-star like schedule, take a look at her Instagram account. One day she might be dancing in Paris—her current home base—another day it’s Florence, then it’s Lagos, Guayaquil, and Melbourne.

Continue Reading
Sundays on Broadway
FEATURES | Cecilia Whalen

Sundays on Broadway

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Cathy Weis' “Sundays on Broadway,” a performance series that welcomes experimentation from a curated group of seasoned and emerging artists hosted intimately in Weis’ SoHo loft. 

FREE ARTICLE
Good Subscription Agency