Virginia Johnson, who rescued Dance Theatre of Harlem, is saying farewell
She created a new model of leadership for the famed company
When Dance Theatre of Harlem returns to New York’s City Center stage this week, the program will show off the company in top form: from George Balanchine’s highly technical Allegro Brillante to the New York premiere of Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s Sounds of Hazel, inspired by jazz musician and civil rights activist Hazel Scott. This season is even more significant and bittersweet, though, because it is the last one for artistic director Virginia Johnson, who, after many years as a company dancer, returned as an executive a decade ago to rescue the institution from oblivion.
In June, she will step down and resident choreographer Robert Garland will become the ballet company’s third artistic director.
Way back in 1969, Johnson’s decision to take a leave of absence from New York University to become a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem wasn’t popular with either her parents or her peers. The former wanted her to enter a profession like medicine or law and the latter frowned upon ballet as a white man’s art. Yet her decision would not only launch a notable artistic career — it would also shift the art form of ballet toward a more progressive future.
“The thing about the company, in those first days in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church, was that each and every one of us had been told we couldn’t do this, that there was no place for us in classical ballet,” said Johnson. “We had trained all our lives to be ballet dancers, usually the only Black person in the classroom. But we all knew that we belonged in this art form — it’s just the art form didn’t believe it.”
The first artistic director was Arthur Mitchell, a famed performer with New York City Ballet. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Mitchell and Karel Shook decided to return home to Harlem to start a school to bring ballet, along with its joys and discipline, to young people. That school eventually gave birth to a professional company.
“He gave us the chance to make a place for ourselves,” said Johnson. “We were thrilled. But we were also challenged because he was a very difficult taskmaster. If you’re going to change people’s minds about something like ‘Do Black people belong in ballet?’ then you must show them all kinds of excellence that they did not expect, they did not know was possible. So it was completely wonderful to be dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem from the beginning, but it was so difficult and excruciating to do at the same time.”
Johnson navigated that demanding path, and Mitchell’s brutal leadership style, with talent, an uncompromising work ethic, and a humility and grace that left a deep impression on her colleagues, dance critics and balletomanes. She became known for her moving portrayals of characters as diverse as the fragile, broken-hearted Giselle in the ballet company’s Creole Giselle and the brooding axe-murderer Lizzie Borden in Agnes De Mille’s Fall River Legend. She also animated the steps of abstract works “by means of her uncanny physical imagination,” according to dance critic Elizabeth Kendall. And she sustained such greatness for nearly three decades, a feat matched by few other dancers.
The final line of Kendall’s appraisal of Johnson’s dancing career, written for Dance Magazine on the occasion of Johnson’s farewell performance in 1997 at the age of 47, read: “It is for her generosity to ballet that she should be remembered.”
That line would prove prescient. After retiring from the stage, Johnson returned to school, majoring in communications at Fordham University. Her goal was to find a way to bring ballet to television. But discovering the financial obstacles in presenting art via a largely commercial medium, she pivoted to print media. At a job interview for Dance Spirit magazine, the publisher asked her what she thought should be in their new ballet magazine. Her outline — which included everything she wished she had known about ballet as a young person — became Pointe magazine. Johnson was hired as its first editor-in-chief.
“When I was a performer, my focus had been on myself and making brilliant performances and so I was extremely blinded,” Johnson said. “And through the process of working on different stories and interviewing different people, I got to see what the universe of ballet was, and it was a real education. I couldn’t be an artistic director now if I hadn’t had that interim phase.”
Meanwhile, the Dance Theatre of Harlem was foundering amid mounting financial troubles and in 2004, the company went on hiatus. The organization was reduced to a school and a small pre-professional ensemble at its home in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. When Mitchell called Johnson in 2009 to ask her to be the next artistic director, the future of the company was anything but certain. Yet, she didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge.
“Dance Theatre of Harlem gave me the life I dreamed of,” said Johnson. “And this was Arthur Mitchell on the line saying he wants me to take over. And I couldn’t say no. It was my turn to pay back. He’d given me so much, I had to return.”
“When Virginia took the reins of Dance Theatre of Harlem, it was a very, very challenged situation,” said Anna Glass, the current executive director. “The company had such a huge reputation and legacy, and she herself had a huge reputation and legacy. But she took it on with such grace, not being concerned with what if this falls apart, will this ruin my reputation. And I think for most people, that would have been a consideration.”
The obstacles were immense. There were debts to be repaid and restarting the company required both significant fundraising and finding new dancers. Somehow, Johnson saw opportunity.
“It was a chance to bring back another vision for ballet, that he [Mitchell] had started all those years ago, that people had forgotten in a mere seven years. It could be something other than what they were thinking,” she said.
Looking to return with a less expensive model, and a repertoire that could be performed with fewer dancers, Johnson received support from the Ford, Andrew W. Mellon, and Rockefeller foundations. Together with consultants from the foundations, and then-executive director Laveen Naidu, she spent two years planning for the company’s return. The old ballet company toured with 54 dancers and two trailers of scenery. Today, the company has 18 dancers touring by plane with wardrobe tucked into checked baggage.
“It’s a starkly different company from the company that was that closed in 2004, you know, and a lot of that is economic,” Johnson said. “A lot of it is because we must be a touring company. We have an image that we have to carry across the world. It’s not like we do a five-performance series in [New York] City Center every year. It’s about being able to reach people in lots of different kinds of locations.”
But before those first performances and tours, dancers had to be found.
“It was an organization with a big name, but from an artistic standpoint, it might as well have been a startup company because she had to start over,” said Glass.
“We did a national tour looking for dancers for the new company. There would be 200 people in the room and maybe 10 of them were Black. And maybe one of them had the level of training that I needed to make the company alive again,” Johnson recalled. “It was very sobering. People had forgotten so quickly, or this entrenched idea of ballet being for white people only was still so prevalent. It was very disheartening.”
There is no official count of the percentage of Black dancers in American professional companies, but anecdotally the number is likely in the mid-single digits. To get Dance Theatre of Harlem back off the ground, some dancers were promoted from the small performing ensemble that had been started as a kind of second company during the hiatus. But most were found and developed from the audition tour. Rebuilding quickly, the young and mostly green dancers arrived in May 2012 with performances scheduled for that fall.
In the studio, dancers encountered a very different person from Mitchell at the front of the room.
“As a dancer, you always have someone that tells you what to do,” said dancer Ingrid Silva, “and with her, it’s funny, she asks you a question. What do you think? Or what are the things that you want to work on? What do you want to achieve? It was eye-opening and shifted everything.”
Her approach is not only a departure from Mitchell’s dictatorial style, it is also a new model of leadership for an industry rife with stories of trauma and abuse.
“I did not want to be the kind of harsh leader that Arthur Mitchell was, even though I completely understood his why,” Johnson said. “But it’s not my temperament. I wanted to give dancers the chance to have a voice, to be self-activators, self-actualizers. You get the best art from that place. We’ve all seen the autobiographies of people who were wrecked by their career, but I don’t think that’s what ballet is. Ballet is about an ideal.”
“Virginia always said that she wanted dancers who could think for themselves, who saw themselves as citizens of the world and not solely vessels, who were willing to embrace and embody the mission and vision and values of Dance Theatre of Harlem. When she’s in the studio working with the dancers, it is from that that framework,” Glass said.
Along with a more empowering vibe in the studio, Johnson also pushed the repertoire into the 21st century, commissioning choreographers with a fresh perspective, many of them Black women.
One of those commissions was Passage, a ballet choreographed by Claudia Schreier to a score by Jessie Montgomery — a rare collaboration for ballet between two Black women — that honored the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North American shores.
“It was an incredible thing to be taken on under her wing and to have had her support behind me throughout the entire creation process,” said Schreier. “But more generally, in terms of female choreographers, the thing that is less public is that she’s so nurturing and supportive behind the scenes, and very quiet and humble about all the different feelers she has out, all the different connections she’s making all the time. I’m so grateful for all the ways in which I know she has had a hand in helping me get to different places, certain opportunities, and being able to branch out and have new experiences.”
That willingness to network has benefited the whole ballet community. In 2017, Johnson and Glass spearheaded The Equity Project, convening 14 American artistic and executive directors for a discussion about diversity and inclusion efforts. A year later, the conversation became a three-year initiative that is now bearing some fruit, as more Black dancers than ever can be seen throughout the ranks of ballet companies in America and worldwide.
“Virginia is very passionate about the work that we’re doing with The Equity Project and she has really spoken up about that,” Glass said. “And because she is so well respected among ADs, they listen to what she has to say. The only reason why we’re seeing the shifts that we are seeing in ballet now is because of Virginia.”
“Throughout her career at DTH, Johnson has been a bridge from the era in which the company began to the present day,” Lydia Murray, managing editor of Pointe, said in an email. “There has been significant progress in diversity in ballet, from who is onstage to whose stories are told [though there is still much work to be done], and her efforts have been profoundly instrumental in that shift.”
Ever the calm captain, she remained unflappable as she steered the company through the coronavirus pandemic and the protests after the murder of George Floyd by police, creating digital programs such as DTH On Demand and helping the dancers confront the injustice just as the founding members confronted King’s assassination.
“We have work to do. Our work is ballet. And we’re going to do it because we can change the world with it,” said Johnson.
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s current annual budget is $7 million, Glass said. With a $10 million gift, secured in 2021 from philanthropists Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett, along with another significant gift from the Ford Foundation in 2020, there is reason to hope that their work can continue.
Johnson said her job has been too all-consuming to put plans in place for her next act. But she knows two things: She has 12 college credits left to fulfill a promise to her parents, and she wants to get back to being an artist, perhaps returning to two novels that are in the works. No matter what lies ahead, her legacy in ballet is already written.
“She’s a living legend and the company just simply wouldn’t be what it is without her,” said Schreier.
Dance Theatre of Harlem performs at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., April 19-23.