New Book Celebrates African American Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem

Book Cover - Dance Theatre of Harlem by Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel

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Created in 1969, just a few short years after the Jim Crow laws were abolished, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has been a revolutionary and highly influential creative force for the past 50 years. Throughout its history, this American ballet company's dancers have proved that classical ballet can move beyond skin tone to focus on talent. Now, a new book by Company members Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel, Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration, explores the rich history of this vital institution for the first time.

The Company was founded by dancer Arthur Mitchell, who was the first permanent African American principal male dancer at the New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook, a renowned ballet master, choreographer, and writer. As Mitchell said, they set out to prove that “Black children, given the same opportunity as white children, could be great dancers.” And, across 300 pages, Tyrus and Novosel recount just how they made that happen.

Dance Theatre of Harlem honors the Company's vital contributions to the African American history of ballet. Broken into sections, the book looks at the evolution of the Company and how it dealt with the changing times. In fact, a timeline of important historical events accompanies each chapter, giving readers insight into the background of what was happening as the Company toured the world and broke barriers.

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Balanchine’s Agon

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Balanchine’s Agon, 1957 (Photo: Martha Swope, ©NYPL)

From dancers appearing in film and television to the devastating effect that the AIDS crisis had on the Company, the book is a fascinating look at how this cultural institution has evolved. And, of course, the book also tackles the segregation and racism that has plagued the Company's—and America's—history in a way that's more important than ever to understand.

Still, in the end, Dance Theatre of Harlem is a love letter to an institution. It's a celebration that reminds the public of how the Company has pushed the envelope and driven inclusivity in the classical dance world. And it leads us into the present day, with the Dance Theatre of Harlem thriving through the global pandemic and in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Putting performances online, they are as active as ever.

This beautiful coffee table book, which will delight ballet lovers, as well as techies, musicians, artists, and all adults interested in the civil rights movement, makes the perfect gift. And it certainly proves what Shook already knew in 1978, when he said, “The Dance Theatre of Harlem is more than the dance. More, even, than the nurturing community school it has become—it is intensely dedicated to enriching the young and the old in music, dance, and theatre; the arts which the brain and the hand of man have emblazoned upon the conscience of all humanity.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration, published by Dafina Books, is now available online and in all major bookshops.

Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration honors the revolutionary 50-year history of this classical ballet company.

Dance Theatre of Harlem

The young company c. 1969 (Photo: Marbeth, Courtesy of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Archive)

The coffee table book shares everything from the Company's creation to the current day, weaving a rich tale of its history.

Dance Theatre of Harlem Company men in Robert North’s "Troy Game"

The Company men in Robert North’s “Troy Game” (Photo: Martha Swope, ©NYPL)

Company Dancers in Tones II

Company Dancers in Tones II (Photo: Kent G. Becker)

Dance Theatre of Harlem Company in Garland's Gloria

The Company in orans in Garland’s Gloria, 2012 (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Dance Theatre of Harlem: Shop

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Kensington Publishing.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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