Dance Theatre of Harlem celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution celebrates the 400th anniversary of significant events that happened in Virginia.
These two institutions, along with the Virginia Arts Festival, have worked together to present a world premiere performance by Dance Theatre of Harlem called “Passage” on Friday, May 3 through Sunday, May 5 at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.
I spoke to Kathy Spangler, Executive Director of 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution. In 2013, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution to commemorate key events in Commonwealth history that occurred in 1619. “American Evolution – Virginia to American – 1619-2019” was formed. This organization has spent the last five years “partnering with leading institutions across Virginia who cared about this important legacy.”
Five key events took place in Virginia in 1619:
- The first representative legislative assembly was formed on the banks of the Elizabeth River in Jamestown
- The first recorded African people came ashore at Ft. Monroe in Hampton
- The first English women were recruited to come to the New World in significant numbers
- The first “official” English Thanksgiving was celebrated in the New World
- The Virginia Company “embarked on an entrepreneurial and innovative” mission in Jamestown
According to Spangler, “many, many meetings were held across the state” and three themes were developed for this celebration. They are democracy, diversity and opportunity.
American Evolution wants to focus on more than the study of history. The goal is to “provide a lasting legacy, create new works, new programs and new opportunities for the future of Virginia.”
The Virginia Arts Festival was involved in the planning of the 2019 Commemoration from early stages. Spangler says that the VAF has been “a tremendous partner”. American Evolution wants to “tell stories, share perspectives on history in a contemporary way so that the narrative of our state keeps expanding and moving forward.” Spangler is excited to see the world premiere of “Passage”.
Passage was commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival in partnership with American Evolution for the 50th Anniversary of Dance Theatre of Harlem and the 2019 Commemoration, recognizing the 400th anniversary of a series of pivotal events in America’s history that continue to define the nation’s path. Among these events are the arrival of enslaved Africans, the recruitment of women in large numbers, and the first democratic assembly. Drawing upon underlying themes of struggle and aspiration, the ballet reflects, in abstract, the fortitude of the human spirit and an enduring will to prevail.
I also spoke to Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. She told me “Passage is about the strength of the human spirit and the capacity to overcome obstacles.” She is very excited that both the composer and the choreographer are young, African American women. “It’s time to hear voices that haven’t been heard before.”
Claudia Schreier is the choreographer. She is the artistic director of her own dance company and has choreographed over 25 neoclassical and contemporary works.
Jessie Montgomery is the composer of “Passage”. Montgomery will bring her own string quartet, Catalyst Quintet, to perform the piece, along with members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
Dance Theatre of Harlem will be performing more of their famous works, including “Dougla” at each performance. They have had a long relationship with the Virginia Arts Festival. Johnson says she is “thrilled that Hampton Roads is so committed to the arts.”
The Slover Library Foundation and the Virginia Arts Festival are presenting “Dance Theatre of Harlem from Black and White to Living Color”. This exhibition is on view at the Slover Library in Norfolk through May 7. It chronicles the first fifty years of Dance Theatre of Harlem with 63 photos from their archives, some never seen before. There are also behind-the-scenes photos of the creation of “Passage”.
For more information about Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Virginia Arts Festival, go to https://secure.vafest.org/single/eventDetail.aspx?p=633