Robert Garland instructed a group of dancers to form a line from tallest to the shortest.
The girls, clad in purple and black leotards or shorts, quickly shuffled around the dance studio, trying to figure out who goes where. The lone boy, Elijah Hughes, stood in the back.
“There shouldn’t be that much discussion,” said Garland, setting his sights on a girl directing her classmates where to go. “Miss, why are you directing? Just get in line. Move over, baby.”
After splitting off into two groups, the class performed a combination of side and back kicks in unison.
This wasn’t a typical dance class for Garland, the artistic director of ballet company Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Instead of his 20 principal dancers, Garland was teaching a group of teenagers at the Detroit School of Arts.
The Monday class was one of several community engagement events for the ballet company ahead of Saturday and Sunday performances at the Detroit Opera House. The stop is part of DTH’s 2023-2024 tour, which started last month in North Bethesda, Maryland. Tickets for the Detroit shows begin at $60.
Garland said teaching at the Detroit school brought back memories of his days as a teen at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.
“I started just like this in a school with like-minded kids that wanted to learn about the arts,” Garland told BridgeDetroit. “Coming back, it does bring back memories of being in this environment and what that meant to me and how the slightest, littlest thing can inspire you to do something different.”
DTH was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, a principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook, becoming the first Black ballet company in the United States. Prompted by the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. the year prior, Mitchell0 wanted to create a ballet school in his native Harlem to give neighborhood kids the opportunity to learn the performative dance. Today, DTH has toured around the world, has a dance school for children and young adults and a national and international education and community outreach program.
But one of the company’s favorite cities to tour is Detroit and the city was like a second home for Mitchell, Garland said.
“He loved Detroit,” he said. “He often talked about Detroit being a second home for us.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s long history with Detroit
Detroit’s stop is also a homecoming of sorts for DTH Executive Director Anna Glass, who grew up in Saginaw. As a kid, she remembered going to the D with her family to see DTH and Alvin Ailey at the Detroit Music Hall.
“It was definitely a trek from Saginaw, but it was one of the things that inspired me, that there was a world outside of what I knew. And it encouraged me to seek that out,” Glass said.
DTH’s relationship with Detroit dates back five decades to when the company first performed in the city in 1976. Like today, the company’s early visits to Detroit consisted of classes in area elementary and high schools.
“Arthur Mitchell was a force of nature,” Jon Teeuwissen, Detroit Opera’s artistic advisor for dance, said in a news release. “As a Dance Theatre of Harlem alumnus, I am thrilled to reunite this unique and timelessly relevant company with our Detroit audiences.”
A mix of classical and contemporary
Glass said attendees will get to see four ballets at the two shows, which take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. One of those is “Allegro Brillante,” a classical piece by choreographer and New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine, set to music from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
“It’s a classical ballet, but you will see Dance Theatre of Harlem’s spin on it,” Glass said. “It’s always beautiful to see a classical ballet performed by people of color.”
Then there’s more contemporary pieces like “Blake Works IV,” which features music by electronic artist James Blake, and “Return,” a dance choreographed by Garland and set to music from Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
“Aretha was a strong supporter of Dance Theatre of Harlem,” Glass said. “She often would have some of our dancers go on tour with her. She was very close to Arthur Mitchell and wanted to be a ballerina when she was a young person. We had a very long and deep relationship with Aretha, so it’s wonderful for us to be able to bring this ballet back to Detroit for the audiences and celebrate our dear friend, Aretha Franklin.”
Inspiring the next generation
At Detroit School of Arts,Hughes was just expecting a normal class, but the ninth-grader said he was pleasantly surprised to see Garland in the studio.
“I usually hate barre because it’s so boring, but he made it fun,” Hughes said.
The 14-year-old began taking ballet lessons five years ago and has hopes of joining the American Ballet Theatre after high school. However, he plans to keep his options open.
“As I take more master classes, my options may change,” Hughes said. “I was thinking of Alvin Ailey and now Dance Theatre of Harlem.”
DTH dancer Keenan English was in the room with Hughes, assisting Garland with the class. English said he was inspired to join the company after seeing them performing while a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts. He then participated in a residency program with DTH and had Garland as one of his teachers.
“Seeing the company members come and perform toward the end of the program made me realize that’s something I can do,” English said.
The dancer, who has been with DTH for four years, said he enjoys the outreach part of his work.
“I love being able to connect with the next generation and inspire them and show them they can do this,” English said. “That’s how I got into it, so it’s good to give back and have a full circle moment.”