Thursday, January 18, 2001
But it doesn''t take Bains long to warm up. As director of CSUMB''s Music and Performing Arts Institute, he is clearly excited, not only about the arrival of Dance Theatre of Harlem''s company members to perform a lecture demonstration on campus at the World Theater, but also about the possibilities that a potential alliance with the famed company will create for the Monterey area.
The founding principles of Dance Theatre of Harlem only sweeten the pie.
Dancers Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook formed the company in 1969. Mitchell, like so many others members of the progressive community, was hit hard by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. His reaction was to start a company that would give children all over--but especially in Harlem--the opportunity to learn about dance.
The early years of the company were nurtured by the heady optimism of the Civil Rights movement. Mitchell''s inspired determination already was evident as he enthusiastically coaxed students through their pliés and tendus in a Harlem garage on 152nd Street.
"We have to prove beyond the shadow of doubt," Mitchell said at the time, "that it is talent and training, not color, that makes a ballet dancer."
As a dancer himself, Mitchell was embraced by teacher and mentor George Balanchine, who invited him to join his New York City Ballet. Balanchine was so impressed by Mitchell''s talent that he choreographed dances specifically with Mitchell in mind, making him a premier danseur in the company.
But Mitchell was the only African-American in the Balanchine''s company and encountered some of the blatant bigotry that characterized the 1950s and ''60s. As Dance Theatre of Harlem Ballet Master Augustus Van Heerden says in a phone conversation with the Weekly from the company''s New York headquarters, "We still have a long way to go. It happens less but it''s still there. It''s an ongoing work in progress for everybody to work with those barriers."
Those barriers and King''s assassination prompted the inception of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mitchell was inspired by King''s non-violent methods and determined to go up against the prejudice that existed against African-Americans dancing ballet. He concentrated on the school of ballet for two years until, in 1971, a neoclassical ballet company (one that allows performers to dance all styles) with the moniker "Dance Theatre of Harlem" made its debut performance at New York City''s Guggenheim Museum.
That same year, Mitchell co-choreographed Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra with Balanchine, a work that combined the efforts of the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theater of Harlem. The Harlem troupe was off and running with the blessings of one of the United States'' legendary classical ballet maestros.
Nibbling Away at Barriers
It''s been a world class ride for Dance Theatre of Harlem. From critically acclaimed performances of Firebird, Scheherazade and a Creole-flavored Giselle to a cultural exchange initiative mutually sponsored by the USA and USSR that allowed Dance Theatre to be the last American ballet company to perform in the former Soviet Union, the company has continued its groundbreaking streak.
In 1992, as part of its ongoing mission to bridge cultural and economic gaps, Dance Theatre of Harlem made a historic tour to South Africa dubbed "Dancing Through Barriers." That sojourn was the starting point for the Dancing Through Barriers traveling university, one that provides the kind of education and community outreach on which the company is based.
Developed into a substantive program, Dancing Through Barriers has several components, the CSUMB lecture demonstration among them. All are aimed at providing the kind of outreach that can nibble away at the racial, economic, personal and geographic barriers that served to undermine the kind of possibilities that were available to Mitchell.
"Arthur Mitchell has been working with young people for years," says Bains. "His background as one of the first Afro-American dancers is impressive enough. The fact that he''s also a MacArthur Fellow and has shown that not only does he believe in the local regional programs but also a national one is truly impressive."
Bains met Mitchell about five years ago, according to Dance Theatre of Harlem Booking Manager Woody Schofield. "Bains has been a friend of ours for a number of years," Schofield says. "We met him when we performed at Berkeley. CSUMB had just opened and he was looking for a way for us to be involved. We''re hoping that it might be beneficial for both of us to do some ongoing activities."
While the PR angle can''t be avoided, the fact that Dance Theatre of Harlem is making its CSUMB debut speaks volumes about Bains'' determination to expand his institute. He''s already brought in the Dallas Dance Ensemble and wunderkind Savion Glover--seen firing up the stage and screen in Tap, Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk and Bamboozled--who made an electrifying appearance at the World Theater late last year. Additional plans are to host the Zimbabwe Dance Festival during the summer.
That Bains'' background belongs to music is further evidence of his egalitarian devotion to the performing arts. Born in San Francisco, Bains went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and then taught at University of San Francisco for a number of years before moving on to direct San Francisco Symphony''s education programs. When CSUMB opened its doors, he saw an opportunity to create a performing arts program from scratch and made the move to Monterey.
"I came in with the second wave of founding faculty members in 1995," Bains says. "We started with just me, and now we have about eight people in the department and three staff people."
Bains says he''s been getting lots of support from the community and the administration to keep the development of the department moving forward. Projects with the Carmel Chorale and the Monterey Cultural Festival, as well as programs with the Monterey Museum and Seaside High School, are in place.
"With these programs," says Bains, "we''re trying to develop partnerships so there''s some reciprocity with the public--the community comes to the university for its culture and the university obtains its culture through the community. Hopefully, with this kind of process, as the community grows, the university will grow."
But the feather in Richard Bains'' cap at the moment, is Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company that has consistently provided works that are not only technically flawless but have a broad range of expression and versatility. From Stravinsky to Aretha Franklin, Dance Theatre of Harlem has set works to an eclectic array of music and worked with some of the country''s premiere choreographers.
Strongly based at its inception on the work of Balanchine--who had been such a mentor and avoided racial stereotyping with Mitchell--the company has gone on to emphasize not only technique but expression.
Choreographer Augustus Van Heerden will be on hand Thursday when the company gives its CSUMB lecture/ demonstration, a form that Mitchell created early in the life of Dance Theatre of Harlem as a way to introduce children to the relevancy and accessibility of dance. The lecture/ demonstration is an informal demonstration of the art of classical ballet, providing glimpses into the daily life of the dancers as they go through classes, rehearsal and, finally, a performance.
Van Heerden was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he started dancing at the age of 9. He has since danced with the Boston Ballet, been invited by the Scottish Ballet to partner Dame Margot Fonteyn on a tour of Scotland, and danced the full range of the Dance Theatre of Harlem repertoire as a principal dancer. He is currently one of three ballet masters at the company and, along with Mitchell and Laveen Naidu, choreographed African Suite.
Van Heerden thinks Dance Theatre of Harlem has changed since he joined it in 1983. "When I first arrived here," he says in a gentle, soothing voice that reflects his cultural heritage, "Mr. Mitchell was just interested in the technique. That''s expanded. What''s important for the artists now is that they make dance complete expression. The dancers are, of course, equipped with technique, but making dance alive and making it speak to people who watch is important."
The lecture/demonstration begins with a ballet class going through its paces at the barre. The barre is then removed and a women''s class is seen in progress, emphasizing pointe work. Then it''s time for the men, who display their physicality and athleticism in jumps and flying leaps. Finally, a pas de deux portion demonstrates aspects of men and women dancing the ballet together.
Performance is the linchpin of the second half, where things really warm up. For this particular lecture/demonstration at CSUMB, Van Heerden says the company will perform Adagietto #5 and excerpts from Firebird and African Suite.
Prior to their performance of the African Suite, however, audience members are invited onstage to perform their own dances. These dances are then broken into steps and codified to show the relevancy of classical and modern steps.
"We try to relate that to the dancing that we do so it doesn''t seem quite so foreign," Van Heerden says.
What kind of reaction does the company get to the lecture/demonstration? Van Heerden says audiences love it. "They go absolutely wild," he says
And while he grants that--at least for some of the audience--part of that excitement is based on getting out of the monotony of school, he believes for many of them it''s their first time seeing dance or even going to a theater. Says Van Heerden, "I think they''re quite excited."
Crossing Cultural Divides
Dance Theatre of Harlem seems to generate that kind of excitement. James Washington, who will dance in African Suite at Thursday''s performances, joined the company in 1988 but left in 1989 to dance with the New Jersey Ballet Company, returning to the troupe in 1995.
Washington attributes his six-year absence to the desire to do other things. He came back, however, "because it''s my home. It''s like no other company," Washington says. "It''s unique because there are so many different kinds of people. It''s a melting pot--a universal group."
That melting pot includes dancers of Asian, Brazilian, Greek, Mexican, British, Trinidadian and African descent and is ample evidence of Arthur Mitchell''s successful mission to cross cultural and ethnic divides.
It''s a mission that Bains feels is easily translated to the Monterey Bay. "Dance Theatre of Harlem is targeted on developing an alternative for young people in the community," says Bains. "They were founded in a community that was typically considered non-representational of the dance arena. I thought there were some similarities being here with Seaside and Marina as our neighbors."
But is there enough interest in dance in the Monterey area to warrant the expansion of a program that would one day, if all goes according to Bains'' plan, grant dance degrees?
"It seems there''s a revival in certain forms of dance and we''d like to encourage that, make it larger," says Bains. He cites tap and contemporary dance with getting the most attention. He also sees enormous interest in dance at local high schools, where he has attended dance performances and been impressed with the production qualities.
When Glover appeared at CSUMB in the fall, Bains says he expected a few people to show up. Instead, "there were 150 people waiting outside to see him and a number of people waited afterwards to get his autograph."
With the anticipation that Dance Theatre of Harlem will make yearly treks to CSUMB, Bains has developed the underpinnings of a dance department, one he believes starts with the arrival of the celebrated New York company. Walter White of Monterey Community College is currently teaching three dance classes for the university and Bains wants to expand that, as well as acquire a building designated for dance. "We don''t have that now, but we have the space," muses Bains.
For Bains, it''s just a matter of time. In the long run, he''d like to have a dance program that rivals the one at Cal State Long Beach, one of the premiere programs in the state. "As we move along, it''ll build up steam. After all," he says with a gleeful chuckle, "if you''re going to dream, you might as well dream big."
Dance Theatre of Harlem performs its lecture demonstration Thursday, Jan. 18, at 3pm and 5pm in CSU Monterey Bay''s World Theater, 6th and 3rd, Seaside. Tickets cost $15 for students and $25 general admission. For more info, call 582-3009.