Above: Dance Theatre of Harlem composer Tania León and conductor David La Marche working with percussionists in South Africa.
[This article was first published under the title Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration in The Music of Dance section of the October, 2021 edition of Allegro Magazine, the official magazine of The American Federation of Musicians Local #802 of Greater New York.]
It’s not unusual for musicians to write a book of sorts. Musicians have interesting careers, and their lives have given more than one author an idea for a movie or a book. When I was 13 years old, a middle class Cleveland kid with the dream of becoming a working musician in New York City, I never would have thought that my journey in the field of music would bring me to authoring a book. I did.
At the tender age of 9, I began piano studies with a wonderful teacher, Fred Kaiser. The man and his method was incredible. He gave me two pieces a week, one classical to read, and one modern in which to improvise. He had a pile of the latest pop sheet music on his desk and he would let you thumb through it and choose what you liked. The man was a genius, and known for getting students to play well very quickly. At the age of 11, a nun caught whiff that I was taking lessons and put me on the organ bench in church, and I’ve held church gigs for 56 years. I mentioned to Mr. Kaiser that I wanted to play and write for the theatre, he suggested that a good starting place is to put together and arrange a 30’s and 40’s musical revue. I did. “Swing Street” was very successful for me in the 1980’s. Since he believed a well rounded musician should know all styles of music, that belief carried me very well in my keyboard career. Gospel piano took me into the African American Catholic Church, working in the African American Communities, as well as the Haitian, Dominican, and Anglo congregations. I felt I had a responsibility to be open to all cultures, musically and socially. Would I learn from all those cultures? I did.
Holy mother the church moved me to the East Coast, and eventually to The Big Apple. My dream was fulfilled when I began concertizing in New York City Churches, accompanying vocalists, composing and playing cabaret shows, and even playing Carnegie Hall. In 2005 the diocese closed my parish school where I was teaching. As luck would have it, the booking agent for Dance Theatre of Harlem was a member of our parish council and suggested I go across the street to DTH and see if they needed a pianist. (Yes, the ballet company was on the next block, 152nd Street and Amsterdam Ave., in HamHi, Hamilton Heights.) I did, and from that moment began the most beautiful part of my life as a musician. There, I played for Company and school classes taught by famous ballet dancers such as DTH founder Arthur Mitchell, Robert Garland and Michelle Lucci. There was Sascha Radetzky of TV’s Flesh and Bone; Ethan Stiefel of Center Stage: Turn It Up, and Gillian Murphy who also appeared in Center Stage—all American Ballet Theatre principal dancers taught class at DTH. Was I the lucky pianist that played their classes? Did I surround myself with beautiful dancers and artistic beauty? I did.
DTH was founded in 1968 by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. They both felt the need to initiate a dance School and Company that would make a difference and provide opportunity for the youth of Harlem. Within a mere seven years, the Company was touring internationally and playing for British Royalty at The London Palladium. I found the DTH story and the DTH community welcoming and amazing. I did.
One morning, after playing for Company class and milling around the piano with dancers, Judy Tyrus, a former Company dancer and then DTH archivist approached me and asked if I could take a look at some orphaned music scores and help her try to file them. I did. She gave me the archival tour and took me to the score room in the basement of DTH’s handsome studios, and I was enthralled, not only with the symphonic scores, but with the posters, memorabilia, and all that the DTH archive possessed. I found it most interesting. Judy and I engaged in wonderful conversation, and after she explained the joys and woes of an archivist, I offered to volunteer. I did. She was just beginning to organize the archive which could be found in nooks and crannies in the building, tons of stuff— stacked a mile high in closets, in various file cabinets, and even in people’s desk drawers. Founder of DTH, Arthur Mitchell, always told everyone to “save everything.” He knew that he and his multicultural classical ballet Company were making history everyday. And they did. I wanted to do something to help save that legacy. And I did.
In a few months, Rodney Trapp, DTH’s grant wunderkind, secured a grant for me to process and inventory all of the DTH playbills and programs—hundreds of them. And boy, did I. A huge task, but I was in heaven. I have a passion for music history, so to handle and peruse every program from 1968 through the twenty-teens, fifty years of entertainment history, including various venue’s season offerings, ads from the 60s and 70s, international tour programs—it was an unforgettable experience. I discovered that DTH had performed with Doc Severinsen, George Benson, and Jessye Norman among a plethora of other top celebrities. I found names of my hometown colleagues who played in the orchestra pit when DTH appeared at Playhouse Square in Cleveland.
It was during this time, while learning more about archiving, we began to have long conversations about writing a book based on the thousands of items in the DTH archive. The archive was jam-packed with collateral that included media in all formats from vinyl and reel to reel to DAT tape to CDs and VHS; from dot-matrix documents to thousands of faded press clippings and thousands of slides and photographic prints. Judy took me under her wing and showed me the ropes of the archival arts. We made the perfect match for a perfect collaboration. I left my comfort zone at the piano for the comfort zone of a genius whose name is Judy Tyrus.
Judy had the “DTH Brain” in that she danced with the Company for 22 years plus worked as social media manager, exhibition curator, and archivist, and did I mention a photographic memory? I did. I was with DTH for ten years, from 2005-2016, I had done my undergrad with musicologist Janette Tilley so I had experience with writing on music, and I had recently done a Masters in Limerick Ireland in Gregorian Chant and music history, so my writing chops were in good shape. A dissertation can turn you into quite a wordsmith. A popular history of Dance Theatre of Harlem was never before written, and many of its international ballet stars were erased from “definitive” published ballet histories. We felt there was a void we had to fill. I had to write it. I did. We did.
We began to work everyday, had bone and blood conversations about diversity and multiculturality, and also wondered if we would ever get it published, and after seven years, we did. Dance Theatre of Harlem: AHistory, AMovement, ACelebrationwas released and in bookstores October 26th, 2021.
When we began organizing the archive and writing together in 2014, we soon learned that the cataloging of archival materials would be date-driven, and that the programs would be a crucial resource that would reconcile the key chronology of DTH’s history. The paper trace of programs and Playbills were hard evidence of the balletic repertoire, as well as the who, where, when, why and how of each performance. This would be invaluable resourcing for the writing of a book, especially to fact check and solve factual and chronological discrepancies. We began with drafting a table of contents and then developed chapters and outlines from there. We wanted to write the narrative so that everyone, including those without a deep knowledge of ballet would enjoy the book. There were amazing unpublished photos from the Marbeth Collection housed in the archive that we knew had to be included. A good number of photos by the incredible Martha Swope are also presented.
In that this would be the first written history of Dance Theatre of Harlem, we wanted to include information for as many of the dancers, celebrities, and members of the community as possible, and tell the incredible success story that is DTH. We indeed insisted that musicians be included as well. I knew that I was a part of a wonderful musical legacy at DTH and had to pay homage to music greats such as conductors Milton Rosenstock, Leslie B. Dunner, and David La Marche; composers such as Tania León, Primous Fountain III and Marlos Nobre; and pianists Svetlana Litvinoff and Michael Cherry.
Through the entire process, we gathered extensive experience in the archival arts. Processing continued the following years mostly at box level, and we digested all things DTH. Judy had her hands full at one point whereby she had to separate Arthur Mitchell’s personal archive that went to Columbia University. At the same time there was a certain number of at risk moving image items that were analyzed and digitized.
One exceptional find in the building, and one that eventually became problematic, was the discovery of 100,000 feet of undeveloped 16mm film and 59 1/4” reels of audio, shot during the Company’s historic South African tour. This was the incredible tour where dancers met Nelson Mandela backstage. The film had been sitting for close to twenty years in non-climate controlled cardboard bank boxes, unbeknownst to anyone. We were always sniffing around—to see if the scent of vinegar was in the air, a tell tale sign that the film was disintegrating. It was eventually analyzed and safely placed in cold storage, off-site in New Jersey.
We would collaborate every day, sometimes for hours, if not in person, with our mobile phones on speaker, and our laptops tuned to Google Docs. I would ask Judy questions, and as she spoke, taking deep dives into various subjects, memes, and notions, I would type notes. And when I would make thought connections or expound on performance theory, she in turn would type. Sometimes we would individually write in a stream of consciousness, turning off the editing part of our brain. “Getting it down,” we called it. We followed the dictum, “Nothing is real until it’s written down.” We found that connecting various DTH ideas held weight and filled out the arc. I, being a night owl, would work until 4 a.m. turning the day’s research and conversation into the night’s prose, to be read, proofed, and edited by Judy the next morning.
The most personal experience for us both was having lengthy, in-depth, down to the bone and thorny discussions on ethnicity, culture, diversity, and skin tone. These issues surfaced because of Chapter Five, titled Pink Tights in Black Tea— whereby a dancer soaked her pink tights in black tea, and it led to a revolution in ballet performing attire. A DTH first, of many.
We looked at our own ethnic heritage, Japanese, Greek, African, American, Croatian, and Sicilian, and we looked to science and evolution theory for explanations and answers. We even curated a vocabulary of non-divisive words, conscious choices to be used in our writing. (An actual list, Words of Multiculturality, can be found at DTHBook.org as extra material.) Race, racism, black, white— words that divide—were relegated to the word heap, and replaced with culture, heritage, ethnic heritage, to level the equity playing field. We adopted “one race, many cultures,” and the one race is called Homo sapiens; and learned that everyone is brown, deep brown to pink brown, and that our one race is a beautiful sepia rainbow. No more bad cowboy in the black hat and the good cowboy in the white hat. Our language strove not to carry any bias, age-old hidden agendas, or discriminatory code.
Just after adopting this vocabulary and its accompanying philosophy of diversity and equity, the Covid pandemic struck. The Black Lives Matter Movement ignites. We felt we were in the moment, and the moment was in our book. We wrote through the lockdown. I did. We did.
After writing more than 150,000 words, and sorting through thousands of photographs, and completing a first draft manuscript, there came the time to find a publisher. We spent months writing a good book proposal, did massive amounts of research on getting published, and networked with friends of ours who worked in the industry. We knew we had a unique product, and at one point, were fortunate enough to have three publishers interested. But we decided Esi Sogah at Kensington Publishers was a perfect fit. We also discovered that editing this kind of book was for Sogah a lifetime dream. Her passion and expertise for the project was invaluable, and we knew we had a talented team at Dafina/Kensington Publishers. After obtaining the appropriate licensing and permissions, and countless editing sessions, our manuscript was ready for publication.
It was then we decided to use all of our life experience even further by founding a non-profit project-driven company, ChromaDiverse, Inc. Its mission is to promote diversity in the fields of dance and theatre through archival projects and offer arts organizations digital data asset management for their archives. We found that history runs a parallel reality to the present, and therefore is valuable in charting the future. We go so far as to say that preservation of the arts and history, performing or otherwise, is Homo Sapien’s responsibility in preserving civilization.
Dance Theatre of Harlem: AHistory, AMovement, ACelebrationwas released October 26th, 2021 by Kensington Publishers, hardcover 304 pages, with more than 250 photographs, some never before published. Read it. Then you can say, “I did.”
-Paul Novosel, September, 2021