BWW Interviews: DTH's Dance Master Keith Saunders Talks Ballet and The Legacy of Harlem
"America's not used to seeing a black face in this particular art form," says 16-year-old Naazir Muhammad about ballet. He should know. He and his twin brother, Shaakir, both practice ballet at the American Ballet Theatre School in New York. Both are aware that ballet is expected to have a certain face. The Dance Theatre of Harlem defies these expectations. Because of this, the company is special in two ways. It is innovative and radical in existing as well as being innovative and radical in dance. Aretha Franklin and James Brown en point? You never.
BWW: What ballets are you presenting in Houston?
Keith Saunders: We're presenting a program of four ballets here in Houston. The first ballet on the program is entitled Gloria and it was choreographed for us in 2012 by Robert Garland who is the Dance Theatre of Harlem's resident choreographer.
Gloria is a ballet that uses the Poulenc music. It's a ballet that pays tribute to the spiritual legacy of Harlem.
BWW: What is that legacy?
Keith Saunders: Mr. Garland in his program notes for Gloria speaks about the rich cultural history of Harlem that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the spiritual legacy like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and the pastor of the church Mr. Garland attends, the Reverend Calvin Butts. He wanted to point out that legacy and pay tribute to it.
Another interesting thing about Gloria is that it employs children in the ballet. And as we tour around the country, each city we go to we use local children to perform in the ballet right alongside our dancers on stage. So, here in Houston, we're using eight students from the Houston Metropolitan Dance Center.
BWW: Could you tell me more about the other works involved?
Ailey, of course, is a modern company. They do not dance en pointe. But when the Dance Theatre of Harlem acquired the production rights of the Lark Ascending in 2012, we put the ballet en pointe. And, when our artistic director, Virginia Johnson, went to Judith Jamison to ask about putting the ballet en pointe, Ms. Jamison agreed wholeheartedly.
It's a tone poem, Lark Ascending. The music is by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the English composer. It's a ballet for six couples. We've been doing it since the return of our company in 2012.
The rest of our program includes the act three pas de deux in Swan Lake, popularly known as The Black Swan pas de deux.
The last ballet on the program is a ballet called Return choreographed, once again, by our resident choreographer Robert Garland. Return is a ballet that's set to songs performed by James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
BWW: That's exciting!
Keith Saunders: Yes, it is.
BWW: So how did you prepare the dancers for their roles?
Keith Saunders: As a touring ballet company, we rehearse and teach the repertoire to the dancers and then take it out on the road. The company that you will see in Houston came together at the beginning of August 2012. We returned after a period of 8 years without having our company. We're at the end of our second season. This is the Dance Theatre of Harlem of the 21st century. It's a smaller, leaner company. We have eighteen dancers. Since we have brought this company together, we've continued touring nationally and internationally and building a new repertoire. Houston will see a mix of previous Dance Theatre of Harlem repertoire choreographed in 1999. They'll see the new ballet Gloria which was premiered on the very first performance of the returned company in 2012. They'll see Mr. Ailey's Lark Ascending, and they'll see a classic and classical pas de deux in the Swan Lake act three pas de deux.
BWW: Do you have any advice for aspiring dancers and dance professionals?
Keith Saunders: Study. Study. Study. There are no magic bullets. There are no secrets. This profession takes a great deal of focus, dedication and hard work on a daily basis. I like to quote the Nike slogan: "Just do it." You have to do it in a very focused and disciplined way on a daily basis if you want to succeed and dance professionally. Beyond that, I would advise young dancers today to get as wide and eclectic a dance experience as they can. Study different forms. Don't limit yourself to ballet. Study modern. Study jazz. Study tap. Ballet, of course, is the strongest technical base. But dancers today must be well-versed in many, many different styles and forms of dance. Each informs the other. Each can help make the other stronger and make a beautiful, well-rounded dancer in today's environment.
BWW: Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring artists?
Keith Saunders: The advice that I just gave would be my same words of encouragement. If you have a passion for it, if you have a love for it, despite any obstacles and difficulties which may be in front of you, you will find a way to make it happen. So my words of encouragement are simply to be encouraged. To keep sight of your goals and dreams and always steadily move in that direction. The final thing I would say, which would serve young dancers well, is put yourself in the services of the art form and not the other way around. Don't ask what dance can do for you - ask what you can do for dance.
HOUSTON: If you missed Dance Theatre of Harlem performance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, have no fear! The Miller Outdoor Theatre will present TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA as part of the Houston Shakespeare Festival on August 1, 3, 5, and 7 at 8:30 pm. Visit http://milleroutdoortheatre.com/ for more information.
BROOKLYN: You can go see The Dance Theatre of Harlem on July 31 at 7:30 pm for CELEBRATE BROOKLYN! The show will be at Prospect Park Bandshell. Performance is FREE. Doors open at 6:30pm.
The program at CELEBRATE BROOKLYN! will include Donald Byrd's Contested Space (2012), Robert Garland's Return (1999), and a sleek and evocative restaging of Frederic Franklin's 1984 masterpiece of classical rigor Lark Ascending by Keith Saunders, Kellye Saunders, and Virginia Johnson.
BROOKLYNITES can also see Dance Theatre of Harlem at the SUMMER 2014 STREET FESTIVAL on Saturday, August 9. The street festival will start at noon and end at 7 pm. It will be held at WEST 152ND STREET BETWEEN AMSTERDAM AND ST. NICHOLAS AVENUES. Performances are FREE! It features Dance Theatre of Harlem School Summer Intensive Students and Special Guest Artists.
Also: Special Appearance by the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company!
For more information, visit http://www.dancetheatreofharlem.org.