The choreographer Robert Garland will take over next year, succeeding Virginia Johnson, who was appointed by Arthur Mitchell, the company’s co-founder.
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Dance Theater of Harlem announced Thursday that its longtime artistic director, Virginia Johnson, who revived the organization’s defunct professional company after years of hiatus, would retire from that role next year. Robert Garland, the company’s resident choreographer and director of its school, has been named her successor.
It is a major passing of the baton for the company, whose co-founder, Arthur Mitchell, selected Johnson to take over for him as artistic director in 2009, giving her the task of resurrecting the company.
“My job was to bring the company back, and that’s what I did, but I’m not an artistic director,” Johnson, 72, said. “For the company to really become the full Dance Theater of Harlem that the future deserves and needs, you need someone at the helm with an artistic vision.”
Describing the vision he sees for the company, Garland, 61, referenced a quote from David Dinkins, the first Black mayor of New York City, who called the city a “gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation.”
“Everything has its own unique identity,” Garland said, “and when they come together, it creates something that’s more beautiful.”
With Garland, Dance Theater of Harlem will remain in the hands of someone with deep roots in the organization: He was mentored early on by Mitchell, becoming a principal dancer in the company and then its first resident choreographer. In that role, Garland has created celebrated works, including “New Bach,” a homage to Balanchine with touches of African American vernacular dances, and “Higher Ground,” a ballet set to a selection of socially and politically minded songs by Stevie Wonder.
“He has got a breadth of knowledge about classical art and contemporary art and Black culture,” Johnson said of Garland. “And he expresses a need and an expectation of being appreciated for the fact of ourselves — not as exceptions — but for the fact of ourselves as individuals in the world who bring value to it.”
Johnson was a founding member of Dance Theater of Harlem, which Mitchell formed, with Karel Shook, after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to provide an entrance into classical ballet for the children in the community where he had grown up.
After 28 years as a company member, including as a principal dancer, Johnson left the organization and went on to found Pointe magazine, serving as its editor in chief for a decade.
When Mitchell asked her to take his place at the organization, which had suspended its company because of mounting debt, Johnson was wary, she said. She took the job, knowing that it would not be easy to reestablish a ballet company, which had been on a hiatus for about five years, during a recession. When the company started performing again, in 2012, after an eight-year pause, it had been reduced to 18 dancers, from 44.
In 2018, Johnson was a creator of the Equity Project, a program dedicated to advancing racial equity in ballet companies.
Johnson said she had initially planned to retire from the position a couple of years ago, but then the pandemic hit and the performing arts were faced with enormous challenges.
Now, though, Dance Theater of Harlem is on more stable footing. When Garland becomes artistic director next year on July 1, he will be overseeing the company at a much more flush time than when Johnson took over. Last year, the company received the biggest gift in its history: a $10 million donation from the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
Garland, who plans to continue choreographing for Dance Theater of Harlem and other companies, said his ambitions also included re-establishing a connection with the dance community in Brazil, where Mitchell had considered founding a dance company and school before he settled on Harlem. Garland said he also hoped to expand the company ranks a bit. (When he becomes artistic director, Tai Jimenez, a former Dance Theater of Harlem principal, will become director of the organization’s school. Johnson will become artistic director emerita.)
A mentee of Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet, Garland is also a devotee of George Balanchine, City Ballet’s founding choreographer, imbuing his own works with that tradition.
“I will never, ever let go of our Balanchine roots,” Garland said. “That is something to me that’s a nonnegotiable in terms of our artistic legacy and cultural background.”