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Dance Theatre of Harlem Auditions Hail Return of Renowned Company

By Della Hasselle | February 27, 2012 9:12am

HARLEM — As a black male dancer, Christopher Renfurm has felt more than a little ostracized.

Growing up in Holland, he says, didn’t make it any easier for someone who, as an eight-year-old kid, preferred pirouettes to kicking soccer balls, and chose to watch pieces by ballet dancers Arthur Mitchell and George Balanchine rather than play video games.

That’s why Renfurm, 21, was among some 150 excited and nervous dancers in uptown Manhattan Saturday auditioning for the newly reinstated, mostly African American Dance Theatre of Harlem professional company.

According to Renfurm, the auditions provided a rare opportunity to try out for a multicultural troupe that was looking for people like him.

“In Holland, it’s not that easy for guys to start dancing, especially black dancers,” Renfurm said.

“If I could be in a big company like this, with so much history, and such a big story to tell, maybe I could be an example for people, not only in America but also in Europe."

Dancers of all backgrounds turned up for the company’s auditions Saturday afternoon, where Artisitic Director Virginia Johnson was looking for talent to fill the shoes of the company that changed the face of ballet in America in 1969, but was forced to disband for financial reasons in 2004.

Many of the 18 dancers who will comprise the new troupe will come from the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, a junior company that has helped keep DTH’s name alive since the professional company disbanded.

But that didn’t stop nearly 150 dancers from vying for the chance at international fame given to those that will hold contract with the DTH professional company when they start rehearsal this August.

“The story that I hope Dance Theatre of Harlem will tell again is the power of the arts to transform lives,” Johnson said in a release. “We look forward to inspiring a new generation of dancers who are prepared to give us, our audiences and this art form everything they’ve got.”

Thanks to $2.5 million in contributions, the upcoming 2012/2013 season will kickstart the anticipated return of a company founded by trailblazer Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American to ever join a major ballet company when he signed on to New York City Ballet in 1955.

Fourteen years later, following the spirit of Martin Luther King, Mitchell formed DTH in the heart of Harlem, to give aspiring young dancers equal opportunity.

The world has come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement that helped inspire black artists such as Mitchell  — but not far enough, argues Keith Saunders, the director of the junior ensemble company.

According to Saunders, the racial profile of the ballet world is nearly the same as it was in 1975, when he first joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

“If you examine it, and look around ... in 1975, in ballet companies large and small, around the country, there’s one black dancer, or two black dancers, or no black dancers,” Saunders said.

“If you look around now in 2012, I think you’ll see that it’s still much the same.”

That’s why he and the other company executives feel it’s so thrilling — and necessary —  to have DTH back in New York’s dance scene.

Auditioning dancers agreed.

“I’m so excited for it,” Danielle Wilson, 25, said as she warmed up before the four-hour audition.

Wilson, who grew up in Columbus, South Carolina, traveled to audition for the company that first inspired her to dance when she saw them perform in Charleston when she was 10 years old.

“I just fell in love with the company… and what they stand for,” Wilson said.

“As an African American, I do think it’s very important to be able to go to performances, or go online, and see people that look like you, and know that it’s possible.”