A New Light

Reconstituted Dance Theatre of Harlem stops in Tucson for a concert of neoclassical and contemporary dance

EXTRA: Dance Theatre of Harlem performers dance – and teach -- in the streets from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Thursday, in the parking lot of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Student Center, on campus at 1322 E. First St., just east of Mountain Ave. At this free event, members of the public will learn an excerpt from the dance "Return" and then perform it with the pros.

I'm not supposed to wake dancer Francis Lawrence from his nap.

He's in Charleston, South Carolina, taking a quick afternoon break in between a morning of dancing for schoolchildren and giving media interviews, and an even fuller evening ahead performing in a Dance Theatre of Harlem concert.

I watch the clock and I give him a few extra minutes to snooze. Then I call.

"Hello!" he exclaims cheerfully in his Down Under accent, sounding wide awake. "I slept 10 minutes. It's never enough. But, hey, I love what I do!"

What Lawrence does, day in day out, is dance on stages around the country, and often overseas, with the legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem. The troupe was co-founded by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American to become a principal dancer in a major ballet company. Mitchell had danced with the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, who created the Agon pas de deux for him.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell returned to Harlem, where he'd grown up in poverty, and with Dutch dancer and ballet master Karel Shook created the first African-American classical ballet company. Dance Theatre of Harlem has since become known not only for its many choreographers and dancers of color, but for its longtime school teaching the joys of dance to kids in Harlem.

"I love the company," says Lawrence, a native of Melbourne, Australia, and a five-year veteran of the troupe. "It's very diverse. I get to do so many different dance styles."

The troupe's 16 dancers land in Tucson this week for a show Friday night at Centennial Hall. Presenting the company's trademark mix of neoclassical ballet and contemporary dance, the dancers will tackle four pieces by four quite different choreographers.

A highlight is "Chaconne," a signature 1942 modern work by the late José Limón, a Mexican-American immigrant (and one-time Tucsonan) who was a giant of modern dance. A lengthy, 13-minute solo, it's performed by Da'von Doane to a work by Bach.

"It's a beautiful Limón piece," Lawrence says.

The late Ulysses Dove, an African-American from South Carolina who danced with Alvin Ailey, is represented by his "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven." A 1993 work for six dancers, it's danced to a score by Arvo Pärt.

"It's a pure ballet," Lawrence says, about death in the age of AIDS, a disease that would take Dove in 1996. "It's a very emotional piece."

The newest work is the 2014 "Vessels," a dance for 10, performed to music by Ezio Bosso. It's by Darrell Grand Moultrie, an in-demand guest choreographer who's a native of Harlem and a graduate of Juilliard.

"It's very contemporary but like all our dances it has a ballet element," Lawrence says. The work includes a daring jump by dancer Ingrid Silva. Like Lady Gaga at the Superbowl-style, "she jumps ... and it looks like she's not going to get caught."

The grand finale is by Robert Garland. Raised in North Philadelphia, Garland is another Juilliard grad, a former dancer for the company and its first resident choreographer. His 1999 "Return," set to music by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and others, is "our standing-ovation ballet," Lawrence says. Mixed with contemporary and hip-hop moves, "it's all heart and soul."

Lawrence isn't the only DTH dancer to have traveled far to join the troupe. Many are from the mainland U.S., but three dancers hail from Brazil. Others come from South Korea, Haiti and Puerto Rico.

Down in Australia, Lawrence says, "I was put into dance at a very young age, 3 1/2. I loved it from the minute I started doing it. I'd come home and dance in the laundry room until I had to go to bed."

At 17, he was admitted to the grueling Australian Ballet School, where he trained six days a week for four years. Graduating at 21, he danced briefly with the Australian Ballet and then headed for the dance mecca of New York.

The tall young dancer got snapped up by New York Theatre Ballet, a small chamber company downtown, but he kept looking. It was 2009, the bottom of the recession, and troupes large and small were laying off dancers. Lawrence found himself competing with unemployed New York soloists and principal dancers with loads of experience.

So when Grand Rapids Ballet gave him an offer, he jumped on it and moved to Michigan.

"I went and the dancers were phenomenal," he enthuses, and the troupe quickly moved him up to solo and principal roles. The downside was that the company danced mostly close to home. After three years Lawrence grew restless, wanting to have his work seen by a wider audience.

Right around that time, the Dance Theatre of Harlem was staging a rebirth. Financial woes had shut the troupe down in 2004 and it remained on hiatus for eight years (though its school and an ensemble company soldiered on).

Lawrence flew back to New York to try out for a slot in the reincarnated company.

"The audition was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life," he says. "One hundred eighty dancers were auditioning. Oh my God."

He made it unscathed through the hours-long mass audition, and a month later he got a callback – and the offer of a job.

"It was pretty cool, an accomplishment for me. I was age 24 at the time. I was really excited."

The reconstituted troupe, now under the direction of Virginia Johnson, a former DTH dancer, is the "same organization" as the previous incarnation, Lawrence says. It's still in Harlem, Mitchell is still affiliated, as artistic director emeritus.

"But there's a different energy," he points out. "The company carries the same legacies but it has a new light."

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