Virginia Johnson Departs DTH

Credit: Courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

The artwork is attached: Credit: Courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

July 16, 2023—After a trailblazing career in the world of ballet spanning more than three decades, Virginia Johnson has departed the post of Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH).

Virginia, along with the late Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook and five other dancers, were co-founders of DTH. Recognized as one of the great ballerinas of her generation, Virginia was among its most revered principal ballerinas due to her flawless technique and vibrant stage presence. During her heralded career as a dancer, she was renowned for her performances in the ballets Creole-Giselle, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend.

About beginning her career with DTH, Virginia said in an interview with Michel Martin of National Public Radio (NPR):

“…Arthur Mitchell was a very tough taskmaster, and he drove us to become dancers that we may never have become without the imperative, you know: If you’re a Black person in America, you can’t be good. You’ve got to be better than the best because people are not going to accept you. And so he very much brought that idea into, okay, we’re in ballet and we’re not just being ballet dancers. We’re going to be the best ballet dancers…We had to band together. We had to be strong and we had to be excellent.”  

Dance Theatre of Harlem was both a training ground and a refuge for ballet dancers of color. Creating space for these dancers within the walls of the historically-white institution of ballet had many challenges. In another interview about her early days with DTH, Virginia was quoted as saying:

“There was a lot of opposition to the Dance Theatre of Harlem; white people thought we couldn’t do ballet and Black people were saying, ‘You shouldn’t be doing the white man’s art form.’…We had to be very much focused on being excellent, being astonishing, changing people’s minds.”

Virginia left the spotlight for a few years, becoming the founding editor of Pointe Magazine in 2000. During her tenure as editor, the publication covered ballet from an “insider’s point of view,” and featured emerging dancers of that time, such as Misty Copeland.

She returned to DTH at the request of Mr. Mitchell to take the helm as its Artistic Director. With the assistance of financial resources provided by several foundations, Virginia was able to sign new company members and resume national tours. She determined to continue Mr. Mitchell’s legacy of showcasing the diversity of ballet as an art form.

DTH not only changed people’s minds, I believe it forever changed the world of ballet.

Virginia was an incredible ballerina—the embodiment of grace, beauty, and a magnanimous heart. She personified the description of ballet that she shared with an interviewer: Ballet speaks to people because it’s an art form of elevation. And elevation is a human impulse.”

I worked with Virginia during my tenure as DTH’s marketing director and preparing our promotional campaigns. I also worked with her during her tenure as Artistic Director. It was very clear that Mr. Mitchell trusted her implicitly to take on a big job during the company’s most challenging time.

Virginia has exemplified incredible foresight with the appointing of a successor whom she believes can continue the DTH legacy far into the 21st century. In the NPR interview, she referred to Robert Garland as “an amazing choreographer,” and she added:

“He’s somebody who’s got his pulse on American culture. And when I talk about American culture, I’m talking about African-American culture, classical American culture, American culture as we want it to evolve to be, which is representative of the people who are in this nation. And Robert is a young man who has access to that kind of vision. So it wasn’t about me stepping down. It was about what does this organization need now to really keep thriving.”

As a staff alum of DTH, I am excited about the unfolding of this new chapter for the company and for Virginia. It is my heartfelt hope that her life will continue to glow with brilliance, grace, beauty, and strength. It is with heartfelt appreciation that I honor Virginia’s conviction to always strive for excellence and her commitment to utilize the arts to elevate the human spirit.

As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your comments below.

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