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At Dance Theater of Harlem, a New Lease on History and Ballet

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Robert Garland has held many positions at Dance Theater of Harlem over many years — principal dancer, resident choreographer, school director, archivist and company webmaster. At long last, he has caught the prize title: artistic director.

A couple of years ago, the company’s executive director, Anna Glass, and Virginia Johnson, then its artistic director, invited him to dinner. To Garland, this was baffling. Normally his evenings were spent at Dance Theater’s school, where he managed the pre-professional students. “I was like, ‘OK, why are you taking away from what I do?’” he said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, come on!’”

Johnson, a former star dancer, told Garland that she had decided to step down. Was he interested?

“I took a long, hard think,” Garland said. “For our organization — we’re so particular as a family and as a culture. I thought it’s best that we have someone that already understands that.”

And with more than five decades of ballet dancers and counting, that family and culture are significant. “Moving the organization forward would depend not only on the art that the company produced, but also on the legacy through its alumni,” Garland said. “And that is a huge thing.” In April, an alumni platform will go live, a place, he said, “where we could galvanize and connect and become a community.”

Garland is big on history. His passion for linking ballet to the events of the real world, past and present, is an important part of his vision for Dance Theater, where he wants to educate the present generation about classical dance, about African American culture and history, and about how it all relates to Arthur Mitchell, who formed Dance Theater with Karel Shook after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Mitchell, the first Black principal at New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, wanted to prove to the world that ballet was for everyone — and every body — starting with children in Harlem. Garland, who danced with the company from 1985 to 1998, worked closely with him.

“Arthur Mitchell made a very crafty choice in making me resident choreographer and director of the school at the same time,” Garland said. “He knew that I wanted to do the choreography thing, but that school part was going to train me in ways that I was not expecting.”

He learned responsibility. Without that experience, Garland said he doubted he would be as at ease in his job now. From April 11 to April 14, he will preside over the company’s 55th anniversary season at New York City Center featuring three of his stellar works, which weave Black vernacular dance with classical ballet: “Nyman String Quartet No. 2,” “New Bach” and “Return.” There will also be the company premiere of Balanchine’s “Pas de Dix.” Garland is deeply influenced by Balanchine, who was a mentor to Mitchell; when Dance Theater was formed, Balanchine gave him the rights to several ballets.

Garland said he planned to build on Balanchine’s legacy with the company; staging “Pas de Dix” (1955) is a step. Along with the dance itself, set to excerpts from Glazunov’s “Raymonda” — it is classical ballet with Hungarian inflections — Garland wanted to celebrate the Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief, its original female lead.

“When you watch a video of Maria Tallchief, she was no joke,” Garland said. “Mr. Mitchell loved her, loved her.”

For Garland, the dance’s folksier Hungarian touches are inclusive. “If there ever was a working-class classical ballet, that’s ‘Pas de Dix,’” he said. “It has pride to it. I had to remind my dancer Kamala Saara the other day that the piano is essentially a percussion instrument. So you’ve got to hear it as not, some lilting, melodic thing, but as percussive.”

Garland chose Kyra Nichols, the former City Ballet principal known for her musicality and technique, to stage it. “Mr. Mitchell always said ‘Get a ballerina,’ and that’s what I did. He said, ‘Always have a ballerina, Robert. It’s a different thing.’”

The ballerina’s solo in “Pas de Dix” also appears in Balanchine’s “Cortège Hongrois” (1973), along with some of the same music. Nichols’s only experience with “Pas de Dix” was dancing that solo in “Cortège,” for which she was coached by Balanchine. “It was technical,” she said, “but it was very much like, ‘Get down low, dear.’ ‘You have to ask for money, money, money, money.’” He would ask her to bend as low as she could and to reach out as if collecting coins while moving in a circle and executing tiny steps on pointe.

“All those came back to me,” she said, referring to his images.

She learned the rest of it — teaching herself the solos in her basement — from a Miami City Ballet video before spending two weeks at Dance Theater. “They’re really good dancers, but they’re just nice people and easy to work with,” she said. “I didn’t want rehearsals to end.”

Garland has ideas about contemporary choreography, too. William Forsythe’s “Blake Works IV the Barre Project)” will be reprised at City Center. And Garland is eager to commission a ballet by the modern choreographer Ronald K. Brown. “I think that my dancers are ready to address the range,” Garland said. “He’s such an artist and so committed to the African diaspora. And there aren’t many people that really are doing that now. Sustaining that and giving him another space to do that in is important to me.”

To Garland, the beauty of Dance Theater is the combination of ballet and African American culture, which creates a new aesthetic and a new idea. “The ballet aesthetic needs to be balanced with rhythmic acuity,” he said. “And the rhythmic acuity of Ron’s aesthetic and Forsythe’s aesthetic are very similar. Weirdly. The experiment will be complete when Ron’s in the studio and I’m looking. But I just really love that they both rely on rhythm.”

Balanchine, too, was all about rhythm — accents, phrasing, counts. But when Garland talks about the importance of Balanchine, it’s about more than dance: “He was very prolific in particular ways that were essential to the fabric of America becoming what it was to be,” he said, and he did it “through this particular medium, which was ballet.”

Garland sees how Balanchine was fascinated by the jazz aesthetic. “At some level, Mr. Mitchell was the vessel, particularly with ‘Agon,’ through which Mr. Balanchine was able to wrestle with both the cultural and artistic antecedents of his art form,” Garland said.

“Agon” (1957) is the groundbreaking Balanchine ballet set to Stravinsky, which paired Mitchell with a white ballerina, Diana Adams. In a 2015 interview, Mitchell, who died in 2018, said: “This is before racial equality. The fact that Mr. Balanchine took upon himself to put me with a Caucasian ballerina and to do a wonderful pas de deux was unheard-of.”

As Garland sees it, “Mr. Balanchine was pretty much up on what was going on politically in the world as well. He knew that the person whose body he was creating on, other people in the world had other ideas about that body. And that’s another part of his legacy that is just humongous, and people cannot underestimate the impact on the world that that choice made.”

He added: “It’s like for other dancers, fine if you want to just dance his ballets. I don’t want to lose that history.”

And what about his own choreographc aspirations? Garland is a much-admired creator of ballets that put a contemporary spin on rigorous classical vocabulary — he loves pop music as well as classical — but for now he is putting that work on hold in favor of establishing his relationship with his dancers.

When Johnson was in charge and Garland was the resident choreographer, he felt like “the babysitter for the night,” he said. “Then the parent came home, and I’d leave and do what I did. Now I’m the parent, and I have to care differently. And that’s care not only from myself to the dancers, but also managing the choreographers’ relationships with the dancers.”

For his first ballet as artistic director next year, Garland wants to lean into the 1970s. But not like the way he did with “Higher Ground,” his acclaimed work exploring social injustice through Stevie Wonder’s music. “I’m going to go back to that other side, just for some fun,” he said. “Also, I love these dancers. They’re in a moment now where they are wanting to express their joy.”

Recently, he tested this theory. During a rehearsal break, he played “Movin’,” by the funk group Brass Construction. “I saw them moving, and I was like, Oh, they’re getting this, they’re feeling this,” he said. “Like, Alexandra Hutchinson gets up and starts doing her thing. I love them in that way. They are fully ballet dancers and fully Black people. It’s kind of like, hello? What else do you expect? This is who we are.”

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