HARLEM — Before the Dance Theatre of Harlem shut down its touring company in 2004 under the weight of $2.3 million of debt, the renowned ballet had a total of 65 people in the touring company, including 44 dancers.
They traveled with two semi-trailers full of costumes, stages and accessories.
Now, there are 25 people in the touring company — with 18 dancers now — and the staff and their costumes get around on an airplane, said Artistic Director Virginia Johnson during an interview at the theatre's headquarters on West 152nd Street between St. Nicholas and Amsterdam avenues.
"We'll never be 44 dancers again. The world has changed," said Johnson. "But I don't need a spectacle. I need to be exquisite and life-changing."
Johnson, a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and its principal ballerina, was invited by its founder, Arthur Mitchell, back to the company where she has spent more than 30 years.
Mitchell founded the company with Karel Shook in 1969 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The company was the first to prominently feature black dancers.
Mitchell had one directive for Johnson, who retired from dancing in 1997: bring back the touring company.
Johnson, who also served as the editor of Pointe Magazine for nearly a decade, said she formed a 5-year plan. In the third year, or 2013, the touring company would return. And after a few dates in places such as Buffalo, the company will hold its annual gala Tuesday night honoring actress and singer Vanessa L. Williams, with Chelsea Clinton as honorary chairman.
It will kick off its first new New York season on April 10 at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Ford Foundation, which was instrumental in helping to launch the theatre, is providing a $500,000 grant.
The revamped company will perform favorites such as "Garland’s Return" and Donald Byrd’s "Contested Space" but will also have new works like "Far But Close," with choreography by John Alleyne, text by Daniel Beaty and music by Daniel Bernard Roumain.
The last piece features a spoken word element and tells the story of two people who meet on a Harlem subway train. The piece is part of the theatre's effort to collaborate with diverse artists to broaden the theatre's audience.
"People say they sometimes don't know what's going on in ballet but in this piece we are telling you," Johnson said. "It uses the language of ballet and it tells a story that's happening right here and right now."
But the company is also using its legendary name to its advantage. In Buffalo, many people who remember Dance Theatre of Harlem came out to see the show. And last year, when they were booking performances for this season, many venues were taking a leap of faith.
"We were booking a company that didn't exist this time last year," Johnson added.
Touring will be a big part of returning the theatre to complete health. They will travel 12 weeks out of the season on a national and international tour. There will be a New York season and an "Uptown presence," as Johnson put it.
The return of the touring company brings back an important element in the Dance Theatre's mission, which includes training young dancers as well as arts education.
"We didn't have a place for our young people to aspire to be a part of," Johnson said.
That includes dancers like Gabrielle Salvatto, 23, who grew up in the Bronx and spent many summers at Dance Theatre of Harlem. She graduated from The Juilliard School in 2011 and now is back with the company as a dancer.
Salvatto says she benefited from the generosity of the company, attending many a summer program for free.
"It's exciting and scary," Salvatto said about her new role. "I feel we are fresh but I want to help get us back to where we were when we left off."
During a recent rehearsal, Ballet Master Keith Saunders was driving the dancers to that goal.
At the end of an hour-long rehearsal he gave detailed instructions, critiquing everything from feet placement to how the dancer must look while being lifted in the air.
"The whole group must be tight," he said.
Salvatto added the theatre's focus on contemporary work should also be exciting to both old and new Dance Theatre of Harlem fans.
"Be open-minded. We are doing the classic pieces," Salvatto said. "But also be prepared to experience something different."