The first time I learned about Dance Theatre of Harlem, I was twelve and had to do a report on an influential person for black history month. I think it was my Mom that suggested I look up Arthur Mitchell, former New York City Ballet dancer, founder and Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem , and yes, African-American male.He was, in fact the first African-American principal with NYCB. I have a strong memory of sitting in my basement on the computer and reading about how the school was first formed in 1969 in his garage, with the company to follow, and thinking, ‘wow, look how far they have come’. Now the 44 year-old company is one of the best, most well-loved, and well-known in the United States, employing dancers of many different races and origins.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with one of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s dancers about their upcoming performance and performing arts workshop, ‘Embodying the Dream’.
1- What is your name and how long have you been dancing? How much time have you spent with Dance Theatre of Harlem?
My name is Ingrid Silva. I’ve been dancing for 17 years. I came to Dance Theatre of Harlem when I was 19 years old from Brazil. I came for a summer program at Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2007 and then joined the school’s Professional Training Program. I became a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble in 2008 and the new DTH company in 2012.
2– Tell me about your own dance journey- how and where did you first experience dance and how did you come to be the successful artist that you are today?
I started dance when I was eight years old in a project in the favelas of Brazil called Dancando para nao Dancar. My family always supported me in dance, and my mom used to take my brother and me to ballet classes after school everyday. I studied dance at the Deborah Colker School and Escola de Dança Maria Olenewa. I also apprenticed with Company Grupo Corpo in Brazil. I decided to go to college and study more about dance and I realized I wanted to dance more than just study the art. I had a teacher named Bethanias Gomes, who was a dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s company, and she gave the idea to my other teacher, Theresa Aguilar, to take me to New York and audition for the Dance Theatre of Harlem summer intensive. The journey began in New York City six years ago with a lot hard work and being persistent everyday. The most important thing is having a passion for what I do. That’s what motivates me to grow as an artist.
3- What advice would you give to young aspiring dancers?
Focus is the key. Being a dancer is not easy and it will never be easy. Hard work and perseverance will make you grow as a person and dancer and it’s also important to have support from your family and friends. When you want to succeed in any field, dedication, love and discipline are indispensable.
4- Is this performance important to you personally? How does taking part in a celebration such as this impact you and the company?
Yes, it’s very important. It’s one more opportunity to go on stage and inspire people. Being part of this celebration is even more important because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for equality. Because of him and the Civil Rights Movement, we can dance on stage in front of diverse audiences around the world.
5- What is the company hoping to achieve with their participation in the celebration?
We hope to experience a continued growth of the organization as well as inspire young dancers of color and underprivileged youth by showing them that they, too, can pursue their dreams. With hard work and dedication, they can become whatever they aspire to be. We hope to also continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King: to achieve and do what was once thought to be impossible.
6-How can art- and specifically dance- speak up for social justice?
Social justice refers to the ability people have to realize their own potential. So for me, I knew I had to be a dancer. I knew I had the potential to be great. I pushed myself and worked hard to be where I am. It didn’t matter where I was from; I knew there was a standard to classical dance. I kept myself inspired, determined and forced myself to meet that standard. With that same determination, I found myself out of the favelas of Brazil and in a major dance company in New York City. Dance motivated me but I knew I had the potential and made it happen. It doesn’t matter where you are from; what matters is where you see yourself going.
7- Why is it important now, in 2014, to continue to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
For me, it’s important to show the younger generations what he fought for and why there is more of a fair playing field, regardless of your race. It’s important to remember and celebrate so we never forget.
–8 Martin Luther King Jr. is famous for his ‘I have a dream’ speech and the goal of equality. If you could dream of a better, brighter world, how would it be different? How is your life as an artist contributing to that goal?
I would like to see more black dancers in classical ballet, especially black girls studying and performing ballet. It’s very rare see black ballerinas. The importance of Dance Theatre of Harlem is to show the world that we can all be equal as artists and represent something larger than ourselves.
My example is this: I come from a favela in Brazil, am black, have a poor family and yet, despite all those odds, I became a ballerina. We can all pursue our dreams, grow and fight to move forward, and change people’s lives, including my own. One just need a few opportunities like I had. Basically I had one shot and I grabbed it. I was only 19 years old coming to New York, with no English or family, but I had a strong dream and focus.
When I go on stage these days and I dance in front of an audience, I see how much I have grown as an artist. I see how amazing it is when people see Dance Theatre of Harlem for the first time. I see why Mr. Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem; he believed in giving people opportunities that otherwise would not have been offered. I’m so fortunate and thankful.
Tickets are $27-$79 and are available online at NJPAC.org by phone at 1-888-GO-NJPAC (1-888-466-5722), or in person at NJPAC Box Office, One Center Street in downtown Newark.
The 44 year-old dance company will be performing works including Gloria (choreography by Robert Garland, music by Francis Poulenc): This tribute to Harlem’s spiritual heritage was called “affectingly beautiful” by The New Yorker. Agon (choreography by George Balanchine, music by Igor Stravinsky): one of the defining ballets of neo-classicism and past-carry-forward (choreography by Tanya Wideman David and Thaddeus Davis, music by Willie “The Lion” Smith and Slippage): a ballet that honors the persistence of the Harlem Renaissance.
Rounding out NJPAC’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s on Saturday January 18, 2014 from 10 AM to 12 noon, the NJPAC Center for Arts Education (24 Rector Street, Newark) will feature a free community event for children and their families. “Embodying the Dream: A Celebration of the Life and Message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” will consist of a series of performing arts workshops that support and demonstrate the essence of Dr. King’s “Dream” through interactive arts experiences. Activities are for all ages and will include a “Civil Rights Sing-In”; a master class with Dance Theatre of Harlem; “Dancing the Dream,” a liturgical dance workshop; and “Let the Message Move You,” a drumming workshop; and interactive storytelling.
Dance Theatre of Harlem is a company that continues a fight for equality of race and wealth by sharing their inspiration with those who can and normally cannot afford to go see a top-notch company. It seems to me that they are not just a company about diversity, not just a company about quality; but a company that gives each a measure of equal importance.
Thanks so much to Ingrid for sharing your words ; I only wish I could see you share your talents on stage. Merde!