May 11, 2021
This week on 5.6.7.EIGHT, Aleksandra interviews Virginia Johnson — artistic director at Dance Theatre of Harlem. Prior to taking over as the artistic director, Virginia’s run with Dance Theater of Harlem spanned 28 long years. In fact, she was one of the founding members of the company in the late 60s. Upon retirement, she returned to university to pursue a degree in journalism — a step that led to the creation of Pointe Magazine, where she was the magazine’s first editor-in-chief from 2000 to 2009. And, in 2010, at the request of Harlem’s co-founder Arthur Mitchell, she took over as artistic director.
Virginia’s dive into ballet happened at a tumultuous time in our nation’s history, as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was in full force. In her earliest years, she was discouraged from ballet and was told she’d never succeed, as the art was largely White-dominated. However, with the help of courageous people like Arthur Mitchell, she found her groove and is now carrying his legacy from generation to generation. On the podcast, Johnson tells the full story of perseverance, hope, belief, and a deep love of the art.
"Ballet doesn't belong to one group of people; ballet belongs to everyone. Arthur Mitchell just had to create opportunity."
"Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theater of Harlem out of inspiration and respect and out of a desire to emulate Dr. Martin Luther King's ability to use his talents to make change in the world."
"To me, dance is essential. It's the life and death of the spirit... Art is glue for us humans."
"Ballet is difficult and teaches you really important things like focus and self-discipline and perseverance."
"As an artistic director, you must be an omnivore, taking in all kinds of information and experiences because you bring that to your work."
"You have to learn how to rely on yourself. To know where the boundary is where, if it's not coming from outside but it's important to you, you have to find it in yourself."
"Ballet is changing. I don't want it to lose its beauty and tradition, but it needs to be an art form that is empowering."
"In the pandemic, the inability to do what we are meant to do is a great gift. Because coming out of this, we will have new tools for connecting to people."
Bullet Points (w/ timestamps) - Highlighting key topics discussed:
3:46: Virginia walks through her incredible journey of overcoming adversity — of being a Black dancer in a predominantly White artform — and eventually taking over the company that first showed her how to dream big.
10:54: Virginia reflects on, now, her role as artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem and how the task is daunting and intimidating and stressful yet joyful and surreal.
16:52: Johnson discusses the historic lack of women in dance leadership yet reflects on the winds of change in the dance world and how this trend is beginning to reverse.
20:59: Johnson discusses her nine years spent with Pointe Magazine and the incredible story of how she landed that role in the first place.
26:02: Virginia describes her views on role models and the importance of self-sufficiency.
28:56: Johnson discusses what’s next for the Dance Theatre of Harlem as we all hopefully march towards the post-pandemic era.
32:15: Virginia shares some advice for aspiring artistic directors and describes the importance of being an avid learner.
Bullet List of Resources –
Dance Theatre of Harlem