Dance Theatre of Harlem comes to Staller Center

The Dance Theatre of Harlem performs the ballet

The Dance Theatre of Harlem performs the ballet "Gloria" at Staller Center, Stony Brook University, March 22, 2014. (Credit: Matthew Murphy)

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Dance Theatre of Harlem was long known for the physical discipline of its troupe. Now it must master fiscal discipline as well.

When the resurrected company from 152nd Street in Harlem's Sugar Hill neighborhood makes its first L.I. appearance after a nine-year hiatus, it will do so as a leaner team of 18 dancers. That's down from 44 -- before financial hardships caused the troupe to disband as a performing ensemble in 2004.

Its current tour brings the company to Staller Center tomorrow for a mix of contemporary dance and neoclassical ballet. "We've re-imagined ourselves as a touring company," says Laveen Naidu, a former dancer, choreographer and director of the dance school, who is now executive director. "You can't sustain that with 44 dancers."

BACK ONSTAGE

While the school continued training dancers from 3 to young adult -- thanks to support from the community and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- the performing season that was the face of the company for 35 years remained moribund until its 2012-13 re-emergence.

"Believe Again" was the theme of the relaunch. "It's definitely been a journey," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director and one of the company's most celebrated ballerinas. (She danced for 28 years, until 1997.) Johnson succeeded Dance Theatre of Harlem's founder and inspirational creative force, Arthur Mitchell, who launched the troupe in 1969.

"Our first thoughts were to return the company as we knew it," says Naidu. "But we realized quickly that it would not be possible."

NEW REPERTOIRE

Rather than mourn the past, Johnson says she's been energized by making the most of a more nimble future. Gone from the repertoire are ambitious renditions of "The Firebird" and "Creole Giselle" -- exotic signature numbers that filled the stage with three-dozen performers. In their place, the program for Staller Center, as well as for the company's extensive tour -- from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv -- calls for as few as two dancers. Helen Pickett has choreographed a pas de deux, "When Love," set to music by Philip Glass in a minimalist expression of timeless romance.

Originally choreographed by Arvo Pärt for the Royal Swedish Ballet, "Dance on the Porch of Heaven" deploys six dancers. The aptly titled "Return" deploys 12 dancers in a blend of ballet and soul choreographed by Robert Garland and inspired by Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Also on the program is "New Bach," created for Dance Theatre of Harlem's 30th anniversary in 1999 as an homage to George Balanchine, whom Mitchell called the company's "godfather."

"We're back," says Johnson, "thanks to everyone from the Bloomberg and other foundations" -- Ford, Rockefeller and Mellon, among them -- "to our friends and neighbors in Upper Manhattan."

WHAT Dance Theatre of Harlem

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Staller Center, Stony Brook University

INFO $40; 631-632- 2787, stallercenter.com

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