Dance Theatre of Harlem visits Martha’s Vineyard

Dance Theater of Harlem company performs in Edgartown this Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24 and 25. — Photo by Ashley Melone

The performance company of the Dance Theatre of Harlem had enjoyed a long and illustrious history until it was forced to go on hiatus due to financial difficulties in 2004.

This year marks the return of the organization to public stages, and those on the Vineyard this weekend will get the very first opportunity to witness the current group of young dancers and the brand new dances that are currently being created for an imminent tour.

The 18 dancers have been working for the past two weeks with two choreographers at the Vineyard Arts Project (VAP), a dance and theater residency located on Upper Main Street in Edgartown, to develop two new works for the company repertoire. This Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24 and 25, audiences will get a glimpse of the works in progress when excerpts will be presented at public performances at VAP’s state-of-the-art dance studio.

Two years ago, as soon as she heard about the relaunch of the company, Ashley Melone, the residency’s director, reached out to the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s newly named artistic director Virginia Johnson. Ms. Melone, who knew Ms. Johnson from the latter’s years as editor of Pointe Magazine, was anxious to provide a creative arena for the newly reformed group. Reported Ms. Melone, “She said, ‘Great, we don’t have a company yet. Talk to me in 2012.'”

Two years later, the company, made up entirely of young, emerging dancers from all over the country, settled in to the compound’s beautiful campus tucked away off Main Street, just a stone’s throw from the Edgartown Stop and Shop, and began the intensive process of creating two new works that combine classical ballet and contemporary dance.

One work is a narrative piece by ballet innovator John Alleyne. It combines dance with spoken word by monologuist Daniel Beaty (who recently presented a one man show here). According to Ms. Johnson, “It’s a contemporary love story told through words and dance. It’s really interesting work using this vocabulary of ballet – these techniques that embody all the things you think about ballet in a piece that’s about everyday people in Harlem. It talks about who we are as people and where we are in the world right now.”

The other new work is a full company piece by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s resident choreographer, Robert Garland. Mr. Garland, a former principal dancer for the company, has also created work for the New York City Ballet and Royal Ballet, among others. Of the new piece, with music by Poulanc, Ms. Johnson said, “It uses those neoclassical movement stamps that are so much a signature of our company.”

She talked about how George Balanchine has influenced the company’s style. “Robert is using that extension of the body that Balanchine made possible and adding some other flair to it. I think it’s going to be very exciting.”

The two works represent, in Ms. Johnson’s words, “A broad-reaching repertoire of neoclassical and classical works, which is something we will continue to have.” Of the experience of working at the Vineyard Arts Project, she said, “The art work that we are engaged in has been elevated by this setting. We’ve had the chance to bond as a company. These dancers just came together two weeks ago.”

Ms. Melone is thrilled to be taking a part in the rebirth of such a prestigious and historically important dance institution. The group was founded in 1969 shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an initiative that would offer children — especially those in Harlem — the opportunity to study dance and the allied arts. The education component of the organization has remained active throughout the performance company’s hiatus.

“What’s been very exciting for me is, this is a brand new company,” Ms. Melone says. “That’s really rare, to witness a brand new company come together in the ballet world.” This year the five-year-old VAP hosted some dance workshops and a good number of theater projects, including a new work-in-progress by Pulitzer and Tony award winning playwright James Lapine. Says Ms. Melone, “This is our only professional dance residency this summer. It’s great to get back to our ballet roots.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem performs Friday and Saturday, Aug. 24 and 25, at 7 pm, at Vineyard Arts Project on Upper Main Street in Edgartown. 508-413-2104;