Books are birthed in many ways. Non-fiction tomes are researched from information held in libraries and sometimes solely from an archive. Writing the important book Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration was a twelve-year odyssey of astonishing discovery and relentless organizing of fifty years of historical information—no small task for authors Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel. Their process from the beginning was dictated more by fortuity and duty than by commission.

After her two children began middle school, Judy Tyrus, who had retired from a stunning twenty-two-year career as principal dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), decided to volunteer for the multicultural classical ballet company established by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook. Upon arriving at the Harlem studios where Tyrus had rehearsed celebrated ballets like Giselle, Firebird and other major Balanchine ballets, her good friend and colleague Sharon Duncan gave her a monumental task: to go through piles of programs, documents, and production photos. It was her first archival sorting procedure, ever. 

photo of Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell
Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, co-founders of Dance Theatre of Harlem. (Photo: Henry Grossman)

Master ballet teacher and dancer extraordinaire Karel Shook, with Arthur Mitchell, the first African American principal male dancer and permanent member with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, had built an internationally acclaimed company starting with four dancers in a Harlem church basement in 1969. Within seven years, Mitchell and Shook’s Company of more than twenty-five dancers began touring the globe. Through the Company’s fifty-two year history,these ballet masters formed their community-based School and Company according to their own philosophy. The school grew organically, with Shook and Mitchell teaching allied arts. They trained many dancers, from the streets of Harlem and around the world, turning many into ballet superstars.

This kind of success and notoriety generates a lot of press, pictures, and programs. Why so much? Some ballet companies have their own theater, but DTH did not. The company would usually perform a two to four-week season in New York City, but their bread and butter came from constant national and international touring. For every venue that DTH appeared in globally, a program was created—and all of these, literally thousands, are part of the archive. It was fortunate for Tyrus and Novosel that Mitchell always prompted everyone to “save everything!”

Everything was squirreled away—in people’s desk drawers, in closets, in little storage spaces, in boxes in the basement, under stairwells, under tables and in nooks and crannies throughout the Dance Theatre of Harlem building. Decades of historic materials, mostly unsorted, were scattered and ill-protected. Piles and piles of materials were strewn helter-skelter. It wasn’t long after that first task from Duncan that Tyrus began to organize these materials into the archive. She was hired and given the titles of archivist, alumni liaison, and social media manager. She campaigned and spread the word about the DTH archive, the rich legacy it held, and how it could be used, accessed, and even monetized.

early DTH dance company
The early Company posing with Arthur Mitchell. (Photo: Courtesy of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Archive)

Due to a financial downturn in 2004, the Company went on a six-year hiatus. To keep DTH in the public eye, Mitchell thought that mounting a retrospective exhibition (and launching a small Touring Ensemble) would be a way to keep some dancers performing, and the DTH name alive. So, in 2008, to celebrate the Company’s 40th Anniversary, Mitchell met with the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Executive Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the time, Jacqueline Z. Davis and Barbara Cohen Stratyner.

He asked Tyrus to co-curate an exhibition with Stratyner. It was built to tour and was successful in museums throughout the United States. Full of artifacts such as set pieces, programs, photos, videos, design drawings and costumes, the exhibition followed DTH’s forty-year history of barrier-breaking multiculturality—from rehearsals in church basements to performing at the Metropolitan Opera House. The exhibition was titled Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40Years of Firsts.

Work began shortly after Tyrus sat down with Mitchell, and from his memory, they sketched a chronology with a year-by-year timeline of Company highlights. This would become one of the backbone reference documents in organizing much of the archive and writing the book with Novosel. As the year progressed and the exhibition was curated, the DTH archive became particularly important, and Tyrus continued to rally for its financial support. As more materials were unearthed, and the need for identification and verification became evident, it became obvious that the archive needed to blossom and become the fountain of history it was meant to be with access for all. No easy task, but the process of organizing an exhibition was indeed a driver towards that goal.

Rodney Trapp, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s former director of institutional giving, worked his magic and generated funding to begin the business of cataloging, inventorying, and processing the Company’s archival holdings. In 2010 The Dance Heritage Coalition included DTH on their first list of America’s Irrepla ance Treasures. The Coalition also provided consultants to assess the archive.

Historical programs, booklets, and brochures from the DTH archive. (Photo: Judy Tyrus)
The opening panel for the 2010 exhibition at the California African American Museum (Graphic: Hilary Knight)

Writing the Dance Theatre of Harlem Book: The Next Chapter 

Paul Novosel, a DTH pianist, had a fortuitous encounter with Tyrus. He had seen her in the building and knew that she was now on staff taking care of social media, exhibitions, and “something she was doing in the library with archives.” He had also seen her at the DTH studios during classes, taking photos of dancers. He marveled at her talent to click the camera shutter at the precise moment a dancer was at the highest point in a midair jump.

One day in 2007, after playing the Company’s morning ballet class and while milling around the grand piano in Studio 3 with the dancers, Tyrus approached Novosel. She had asked if he could look at a stack of orphaned music scores and recommend how and where they should be filed. With years of musical experience and a passion for music history, he more than gladly obliged. That first encounter sparked a passionate conversation that would begin a fifteen-year collaboration leading to the publication of their book, Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration. That day, Tyrus felt the connection, and Novosel did as well.

Paul Novosel in the studio. (Photo: Unknown)

That same week, Novosel volunteered to help in the archive, and a few months later, Rodney Trapp again worked his magic and acquired a modest grant for Novosel to inventory and process all the DTH playbills and programs from 1968 to 2014. Theara Ward, a former Company dancer from the education department, also helped in the effort. It was an exhaustive sorting of thousands of pieces spread out over long tables set up in the small library of dance books. Novosel and Ward handled each program with white gloves, inputting the metadata into a brand-new cloud- based program called Google Sheets, and stored the pieces safely away in acid-free folders and archival boxes.

Tyrus and Novosel soon learned that the programs would be a crucial resource for developing a chronology of DTH’s history. They decided that arranging the majority of the materials by date made the most sense for the archive, because when requests came in regarding specific dancers in to the client was always, “Do you know what year?” The paper trail of programs and playbills was hard evidence of the balletic repertoire, as well as the who, where, when, why, and how of each performance. This would be an invaluable resource, if not the most important for the writing of their book, especially when it came to reconciling factual and chronological discrepancies.

They gained extensive experience in the archival arts. Processing continued the following years, box by box, as the duo digested all things DTH. The two encountered many challenges, including separating out Arthur Mitchell’s personal archive when it was bequeathed to Columbia University. One exceptional find in the building that eventually became problematic was the discovery of 100,000 feet of undeveloped 16mm film and 59 1/4-inch reels of audio, recorded during the Company’s historic South African tour in. This was the tour where the dancers met Nelson Mandela backstage. The film had been sitting for close to twenty years in non-climate-controlled storage cabinets, unbeknownst to anyone. Tyrus and Novosel were always sniffing around for the scent of vinegar, a telltale sign that the film was disintegrating. The condition of the film was analyzed and safely placed in cold storage, off-site in New Jersey.

As the two continued to care for the archive, they frequently bemoaned the fact that a single book had never been written about Dance Theatre of Harlem. And the archive held the story about DTH’s founding, uniqueness, and all the benevolence it spread through its dancers, about the distinctive DTH style of performance dress with flesh-toned shoes and tights, and the neoclassic and urban contemporary repertoire that made the Company one of a kind (not to mention that George Balanchine was DTH’s artistic godfather). There were brief mentions of Arthur Mitchell in other ballet books, but regrettably, the Company was not included in most historical ballet writing.

The two archivists soon realized that they were a perfect match for each other. Novosel had worked for ten years at DTH as a ballet pianist and loved to write on music and the arts; and Tyrus had the archival talents, was a college professor in dance at Marymount Manhattan, and had close to thirty years of experience as a principal dancer and staffer. She knewDTH. He had the “writing chops,” she had the “DTH brain.” In Novosel’s words, “Writing with a partner makes all the difference. You get to discuss everything with someone, correct each other, feed each other ideas, learn how to surrender a viewpoint, and strategize together. You must perfect being an active listener, and really think through everything. It beats writing alone in a vacuum. Collaboration such as this is pure magic.”

They began with a conversation on what kind of book they wanted. Novosel was most familiar with the structure of classic music history texts by Gustave Reese, Donald J. Grout, and J. Peter Buckholder. Tyrus thought that the book’s historical narrative should reflect the culture of DTH through facts, humor, barrier-breaking historicity, and beautiful photographs from the archive’s exclusive Marbeth Collection and beyond. Thus began the seven-year journey to publication.

Nelson Mandela and the Company backstage in South Africa. (Photo: Marbeth)

The history of Dance Theatre of Harlem resided in four places: in the physically abundant DTH archive on West 152nd Street in Harlem; in a warehouse in New Jersey; in people’s heads; and a good deal in cyberspace. With these materials, and innumerable trips to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Tyrus and Novosel were ready to begin.

The first task was to find an approach to organizing the book’s contents. After lengthy conversations about DTH culture and hours spent sorting and reading archival materials, the written chronologies proved to be little more than general timelines of major events in the Company’s life. The chronology had to be filled out in a grand manner. Tyrus and Novosel knew that the beauty of the book would be in its nuance. The different “stages of growth” were named, and like the archive, the book would be organized by groups of sequential calendar years. Novosel remembers, “We wrote the table of contents first.” From then on, it was piecing the puzzle toget riting and editing, re-writing, and re-editing, for seven years. Finding the right place for the right event was an endless process.

Tyrus and Novosel would collaborate every day, sometimes for hours, and if not in person then with their mobile phones on speaker and their laptops tuned to Google Docs. They would take turns asking questions and writing notes as the other delved into various subjects, performance theories, and Company history. Novosel, a night owl, would work until 4:00 a.m. turning the day’s research and conversation into the night’s prose, to be read, proofed, and edited by both the next morning. Sometimes they would individually write in a stream of consciousness, turning off the editing part of their brain. “Getting it down,” they would call it. They followed the dictum, “Nothing is real until it’s written down.”

The most personal experience for them both was having lengthy, in-depth, “down to the bone and thorny” discussions on ethnicity, culture, diversity, and skin tone. In the authors’ own words, from the book’s website:

“A good portion of the vocabulary used in the current American discussion of diversity is spurious. It is riddled with hidden meaning or used to control or divide cultures through acceptable derogatory passibility, sometimes unbeknownst to the user. While writing Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration, we confronted hundreds of instances where word choice concerning multiculturality had to be carefully engineered. Early on in our writing, out of necessity, we began to choose our defining terms. This meager attempt at lexicography stemmed from the need and desire to name people and cultures through accurate, respectful, inclusive, and defining word choices. Our approach to diversity came from deep bone and blood conversations about our lives, how we identify with our own African, Asian, Sicilian, and Croatian ancestry, how we identify others, and how others identify us. The United States of America has a long tradition of using derogatory slurs for its melting-pot ethnicities. The term African American for example, has an interesting and fluid transition from Negro, to Colored, to Black, to African American. Language is in constant flux. Acronyms abound in the world of digital texting, which further complicates communication. We searched and favored words that say what they mean with grace, style, and equity.” The authors’ comprehensive Wordlist of Multiculturality can be found at DTHbook.org, along with other resources on multiculturality.

Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel during a writing session in New York City. (Photo: Eileen Novosel)

After writing more than 150,000 words, sorting through thousands of photographs, and completing a first draft manuscript, it came time to find a publisher. Once again, the team’s multitasking talents surfaced. They spent months on writing a book proposal, did massive amounts of research on book publishing, and networked with friends of theirs who had worked in the publishing industry. They knew they had a unique product and at one point, were fortunate enough to have three publishers interested in their work. They decided that Esi Sogah, senior editor at Kensington Publishers, was a perfect fit. Her passion for the project was invaluable, and Tyrus and Novosel knew they had a talented team at Kensington. After obtaining the appropriate licensing from DTH, the book was ready for publishing.

It was then that they decided to use their experience even further by founding a non-profit, ChromaDiverse, to promote diversity in the fields of dance and theatre through archival projects. ChromaDiverse offers its services and support to dance companies to digitally manage their archival assets.

Their book was released on October 26th, 2021, by Dafina, an imprint of Kensington Publishing, in hardcover, with 90,000 words, 304 pages, and more than 250 photographs, some of which have never been published. From the rehearsal studio to the stage to the archival boxes in the DTH basement, Novosel and Tyrus brought dance history to life, and are determined to continue doing so into the future.

Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration was released on October 26, 2021. To purchase, and see book extras and ancillary research materials, go to DTHbook.org

Eric Waldman is a founding partner of ChromaDiverse, Inc. and has held senior roles at large corporations including Hitachi America and Microsoft. As well as a conference speaker, he has consulted across a wide array of advanced analytic products in Microsoft, Google, and EarthNow, as well as for the advanced technology marketplace in data analytics, imaging, cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence 

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