Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants


Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants

Follow two internationally-acclaimed dance companies commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival and the 2019 Commemoration to interpret a seminal event...the arrival of the first Africans to English North America. Go behind the scenes and witness the artistic journey of these works, from concept through rehearsal and ultimately to the stage.

AIRED: December 13, 2019 | 0:56:40

(soft music)

- For thousands of years,

art has been a vital vessel for humans

to communicate their history

from generation to generation.

Hi, my name is Lorraine Graves.

And for 17 1/2 years, I was a principal dancer

and ballet mistress with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Now, I'm also one of the instructors

at the Governor's School for the Arts here in Norfolk.

In this special, you will see

how one of the post pivotal moments of American history

is being immortalized in the form of ballet.

- I wish I knew exactly what year it was

that the Virginia Arts Festival brought us to Norfolk.

I think it was some time in the '80s.

So this relationship goes way back.

- 2019 is a year-long commemoration of some of the events

that took place here in Virginia.

One of those, is the first arrival

of Africans to our shores.

One of the first artists that came to mind

is Dance Theatre of Harlem.

- We wanted to celebrate the African-American presence,

the strength of women.

- It was also really exiting to commission new work

from Richard Alson Dance Company.

Richard had a long relationship

with the Virginia Arts Festival.

- It says the first documented Africans in Virginia

arrived here in August, 1619.

- To be able to add some music, some theater,

some dance to the history of what's happened

in the last 400 years in this country,

it's really really powerful.

(uplifting music)

- [Narrator] Major funding provided

by The Goode Family Foundation.

- Over his illustrious career,

which has spanned 50 years,

Richard Alston has cemented himself

as one of the premier modern British choreographers.

His contributions are so profound

that he was recently knighted by Prince Charles,

becoming one of only a few choreographers

to receive the honor.

So when the Virginia Arts Festival was looking for artists

to take part in the 400th anniversary

of the first Africans' arrival in America,

they knew they wanted a variety of voices

to help tell that story.

Enter the 70 year old British choreographer

who had a novel idea.

He wanted to incorporate

talented American high-school students

to dance side by side with his company.

Watch how it all plays out in chapter one, "Arrived."

(moody music)

- We're really looking forward to the performance.

That's coming up Thursday the 21st, 7:30

at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk.

Richard Alston Dance Company presented

by the Virginia Arts Festival.

So I thought we'd just jump in and talk

about your upcoming concert.

- The new piece I'm making

is to the Italian composer Monteverdi

and the reason I chose it was Monteverdi was writing

in 1619 and 1619 is what we're marking with this piece.

The arrival of the first Africans.

(moody music)

(upbeat music)

- Second shift kids, are you warming?

We are The Governor's Schools for the Arts.

It is a program where students go to their home high school

for their academics

and then they are bussed in to our program.

We have dance, musical theater, theater and film,

visual arts, instrumental music, and vocal music.

All right guys, are you ready to get started?

- We're gonna learn two phrases.

The first one is relatively short.

Then we will film you going across the floor

and also doing it in small groups, right?

The Governor's School dance department has two tracks

that you can take.

Contemporary track or a ballet track.

- Don't suspend on the way up.

Attack, suspend, okay?

I teach ballet, I teach point, I choreograph,

I do a lot of administrative work.

Whatever needs to happen, that's kind of my role.

As we were working on this process,

I felt really strongly and Todd felt really strongly as well

that Richard should have the ability to pick

who he was really interested in.

Remember guys, that the video is going off to London tonight

so allow your joy to radiate to your faces.

And is everyone clear about what's happening?

- Going in to the audition it wasn't like anything

that a lot of us had been exposed to before.

His style is like, very balletic,

but then again it moves a lot

so it was just kind of like okay,

you have to, like, take a deep breath.

- It was kind of hard

to be able to get the swinging pendulum feeling

that Richard's choreography has sometimes.

- They really dialed in and did such a beautiful job

of trying to perform it to the best of their ability

and know that at the end of the day,

you put your product out there

and you hope that somebody sees something in you

that makes them want to work with you.

- All right, so I'm super proud

that you learned that combination and it looked that good.

- It was a great experience for the kids

to feel like they had to be really put together

and really on top of their game.

(electronic music)

- The world of Monteverdi does seem kind of far away

from the world of Virginia in 1619

and the events that were happening here.

- Well, to me it's about meetings of different cultures

which is what happened when the Africans came from Angola

so I thought it'd be really interesting

to inhabit the world where we are today

where we can hear anything and everything.

I love the richness of dance, the texture of it.

And so a composer like Monteverdi

who wrote such beautiful, beautiful vocal music,

there's a sense of rising and falling and breathing.

It's absolutely natural for me to imagine people dancing it.

On the very first day that's what I was working on.

(students chattering)

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.

So just one person missing.

All right, guys you have to understand 20 people seems a lot

but all of you will be seen.

If you're not it's because I made a mess

of the choreography.

(upbeat string music)

- What's it been like working with the students

at The Governor's School?

- Well they're terrific.

It's a very focused school.

I'm very impressed by it.

It's like a smaller

and not quite so scary version of Julliard.

- How much did you plan the choreography for the students

before coming and meeting them?

- Well it was scary but I don't.

I think it's the scariest thing I've ever done

because the tricky thing is to make something very quickly

because I'm only here for two weeks

in such a way that they will be confident.

Selena, can you go from when you've done

the long reach out there.

Shoulders come through the arm,

opens the arm, reaches and there you go.

So all the time, she's got that really clearly.

So you don't separate the arm.

The arm moves and it makes your back move.

All right, very good.

Art has been so important in my life,

it transformed my life.

And to see young people with an appetite for that,

it's just thrilling to see

and it gives you so much hope for the future.

To express yourself and to create something

is such an incredibly important and positive energy.

(reflective electronic music)

When I was a child we had social dancing lessons

and I picked things up quickly,

but to work in dance

was something absolutely not part of my possibilities.

When I went to art college I watched the World Ballet

and that's when I really became obsessed.

I started choreographing six months after I started training

and I didn't know enough about what I was doing

and so I went to New York and studied and took classes.

I was a bit homesick for my own culture

so I decided to go home.

I knew I could teach and that I could work in dance

and there would be a need for that.

What I love about dance is it's about people.

I don't think of my work as abstract at all.

It's about the richness of dance,

the texture of it.

I find that absolutely exciting.

Guys, I'm gonna start in two minutes

and I need you to be focused.

(students chattering)

All right, so here we go.

Ready and one, ta, tee da dee da da da da da.

The one ta, three four, one two three and four.

I was asked to make a dance that marked this important date

in American history.

And I'm very aware of the fact that I come from England

and that I could very easily be seen as presumptuous

and invasive and having an ill-informed opinion

about things.

All right, okay, good good good.

Arms across, one and a two and three and four.

And one and a two and three and four.

That's it, that's it.

I've tried to make a dance on my own terms

about what happened over four centuries.

That 20 people arrived here and their descendants

and now are a really important part of the community

in this area.

And and one and a two and a three and a four

and a five and six and a ba.

I've just read

that they arrived at somewhere called Point Comfort.

That's where they actually came ashore.

How ironic is that?

- Richard's had a long relationship

with the Virginia Arts Festival.

It has always been on the back of his mind,

the history of England and UK and their part of slavery

and he felt it had not had been addressed

the way it's being addressed in the United States.

- You need to do that looking at Eric.

You guys.

So they actually are watching you for the cue

as to what they should do next in this strange place, okay?

It's not so long ago that swans had to be white.

In every sense.

And that has changed and that's so important.

Take one step back, two steps back,

and then begin to go in the diagonal

so he can guide you.

That's it, that's it, that's it.

So it sort of wheels around.

So over the two weeks I thought of Eric

as some kind of leader.

So he's a positive force

so that's why he's the first one to arrive

and he brings the others with him.

- It was so nice for me

to work with Richard on like, a one on one level

helping me and guiding me through the solo

and making sure that the piece

is what exactly happened in 1619.

- Having any kind of work created on you

is a tremendous experience

and working with an artist like Richard

who's done some really incredible things

is such a gift.

- One of the wonderful things about dance

is that it breaks down barriers.

It brings human beings together

and I absolutely always want to celebrate that.

Eric I've got good notes for you

and I can give them to you later.

But I just want us to actually each day this week

push a little bit further.

(dramatic music)

It says the first documented Africans in Virginia

arrived here in August 1619.

It describes the ship as the White Lion,

an English privateer.

That's actually a polite word for a pirate ship.

I've been trying to find out

as much as I can

so that in my imagination

I know something about these people.

This is where, what is now the African-American community,

huge and really important part of the American nation,

started here in such a small way.

I've found it very moving to go to Point Comfort

because looking at this shore,

I could imagine this was the first thing that 20 people,

first thing they'd seen other than being in the dark

inside the ship.

It would have been a very very long journey

and probably the most terrible conditions.

So to me, I think, the powerful image

is of arriving in a very strange place,

very very different people

who don't speak any language that you understand.

They were taken on as servants,

that's what they were officially.

Well, they were indentured servants.

And some of them were freed

so in those early years

there must've been a sense of becoming part of a community.

And then when all the laws changed

and lifelong slavery became a reality

then life became much harsher

and much more complicated.

The horrors of what people went through,

I don't understand it enough

to try and make a dance about that.

But what has emerged over those four centuries,

and a lot of the change has happened in the last century.

All the fighting for civil rights,

it's light years ahead

of where those 20 people, when they arrived.

Yesterday I started making the solo for Eric

and it's really important for me

to have in my imagination

where that might have happened.

So it's extraordinary to see this.

It's very beautiful.

Quite wild.

It must have been even wilder then.

You will see the young students arriving on their own

and then slowly they become integrated

and at the end everyone dances together

and that's, for me,

the really important positive statement.

- [Wayla] So they'll be dancing with dancers

from your company - Yes

- in the performance? - Yes, yes.

- I really wanted to integrate the dancing of the company.

I don't want there to be just nothing but look,

here are the grownups and here are the younger dancers.

One and a two and three and four.

One and a two and three and four.

And one and a two and three.

Okay, good.

Choreography is as much about how you do things

as what you do.

It doesn't have to be incredibly weird movement

if it's done with the right kind of attack

and especially, for me, if it's with music.

I've always loved teaching.

That's one reason why it's very natural for me

to really enjoy working with these young people here.

(classical string music)

This is the choreography I like.

What they do is slightly different to what I set

but it's better so I steal it.

Selena got my attention

because she puts movement together really well.

I often ask people to look at her,

saying "Okay so you see how Selena goes

"from this to that to the other

"and it all flows."

Champion swipers towards Granby Street

are Selena and Eric.

I like the idea of being a champion swiper

but you are.

Here we go.

And you go diddle-a-dee.

See, look!

She doesn't stop there and her back comes around.

I'm trying to point out the things which I think

"Oh, that could work even better if we really made it

"absolutely clear," okay?

- I feel like I got called to the front a lot to do things

but also it's kind of awkward.

As a dancer we're always more judgemental upon ourselves

than our teachers are.

Your body needs to connect to the movement

or else how else are you gonna portray the message?

So that's kind of, like, what I did

following into my piece.

I got into the studio

and moved to what my mind was telling me to do.

(dramatic music)

Hey Emily!

How are you?

- [Emily] I'm good. - Good.

All right, so we're gonna start today.

You can go ahead and I'll just, like,

tell you about the piece and what it's about

and its intent.

My piece is called, "Beautifully Human."

It's about relationships and to let people know

that acknowledge those beautiful people

in your daily life.

I really want there to be a sense of togetherness.

It's definitely really hard to feel like you're one

with everyone else being mixed raced

'cause it's like you're too white

and then the black people don't accept you

or you're too black

so then the white people don't accept you

and it's kind of just like

well where am I supposed to belong?

This knee is gonna come down right to this position

and you're just gonna sit back in that hip

and swivel this leg to this side.

Even though we're all from different places,

we can all come together and be integrated.

That's where it became really personal for me.

Once the audience sees that togetherness is possible,

that energy it'll be carried out with them.

Dance opens you up to the world

and the different kinds of people that are in it

and different perspectives

and I think it just makes you more of a sensitive

and aware person.

I get that from dance and I get that from choreographing

and I get that from performing

which is awesome and it feels so good.

(upbeat music)

- [Wayla] As you've been doing research for this project

is there anything that surprised you

or a story that you found particularly compelling?

- It seems at the beginning

from what I can really gather

from reading as much as I can,

that certainly some of the African arrivals

ended up indentured servants.

I guess the most well known are the couple

of Anthony and Isabella

who were taken on by William Tucker

and they got together

and they had the first African child

to be born in the States.

That image I find very positive.

There's not question about it,

there have been huge dips

and the African-American community has achieved so much

in their status.

We've been together, this is what, the fifth day?

Yeah, so you're gaining confidence and that means

that your movement's got a lovely big sweep to it.

That's good work for today.

I'll work tomorrow with all of you, okay?

I need to keep Eric.

I need to keep Gracie.

- He never mentioned that oh, there's gonna be like,

a soloist part or whatever.

So when he asked me to stay back

I was like, okay maybe he just wants to talk to me

and then he was like, "You're gonna have a duet with Eric."

I've never really had like, a feature part.

So I was really excited about that.

- So this is two people who are very comfortable

with each other.

That's what it's about.

Two, well done.

(soft string music)

- It definitely pushed me,

but more so it challenged me

because of the story behind the duet.

It was about the first African-American couple.

- We have to be able to make sure

that our characters are showing hardships

that our people went through hundreds of years ago.

- I've watched Gracie grow in that duet.

She was hesitant at first

and I've learnt when you see people grow

through your encouraging them,

it's very very satisfying.

Go, go!

There, that's it, that's it!

Did you feel that?

- Yeah, I felt that.

- That's it, there's the tune for you.

Do do, do do do do do do.

(everyone laughing)

You have to make it work,

I just sit here and have ideas.

- It's about something that's really bigger than all of us.

It helped me approach the dance in a way

that I've never really approached a dance before.

I felt the need to do my research

and learn more about the reason

that Sir Richard was inspired to do this piece.

(soft reflective music) (birds chirping)

Tucker's cemetery

- [Eric] First black family.

- [Eric and Gracie] 1619.

- When me and Gracie went to the cemetery,

we both had no idea about the historical significance of it.

- Yeah, you can tell that one's older.

- Yeah yeah yeah, - The cracks.

- That was like, the really really old one.

- I think I see 1818.

- Oh yeah.

- This feels surreal.

It helped me mentally and literally see

what Sir Richard was talking about.

- Like, we've obviously learned about slavery

and we've never heard of the William Tucker family

until now.

It's really really sad to know

that this wasn't taught in schools.

These people were literally the first African-Americans

to come here and they'll have this home

and then have the first African-American child

and then all these descendants

with this beautiful graveyard.

It's a lot to take in at once.

- Sir Richard would remind us

this is what this piece is about almost every rehearsal.

But being able to see the location,

it finally clicked in my head

that this is really something bigger than me

and it just made it more special, more real.

- I actually get the opportunity to change how

people look at the world

and that's a big deal.

This is our one chance to be able to show

how much you get to learn through dance

and being able to work with people like Richard.

(upbeat music)

- [Wayla] Do I call you Sir Richard?

- [Richard] No, Richard's fine.

- [Wayla] (laughing) That was recent, right?

- Yes - That you received

the knighthood.

You're still getting used to that.

- Yes, yes - People calling you "Sir."

- About three weeks ago.

When I first discovered

that I was being offered a knighthood,

I was absolutely astonished.

I tore open this envelope in the hallway of my house

and I just screamed.

- Have there been dancers before?

- There's one other choreography, Matthew Bourne.

And otherwise there were people who've died by now.

Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

All the, kind of, giants of The Royal Ballet.

They described me, not just being a dancer

and a choreography

but that it was for my work with young people.

I was really proud about that.

I think it's terrific for an artist to be recognized.

I do.

And I think, in a strange way,

it gave me the confidence

to be very comfortable about what I was doing here

because it's very recent

but I feel that people have recognized the things

that I've been doing.

So working with The Governor's School

was like home ground for me.

All those things you put it together

and the truth is I'm very very pleased.

Very very pleased.

(moody music)

All right, are we ready to start looking?

Should we go through the lights?

- With the company,

having that presence heightened the energy.

It also heightened the nerves

because all of a sudden what we are working on currently

becomes a real timeline.

- The section where I got to dance with the guys,

I learned that the day before

and so once the company members came,

the hardest part for me was adapting

to what they're all doing collectively.

- [Selena] That was just when it got super real

and we actually had to do it with them

and we had to connect with them

and, like, make eye contact with them

and actually perform with them

which kind of seems unreal.

Yet on the stage we're all on the same playing field.

- We were able to work with each other,

piece everything together

and it just made the whole final show week

a lot more relaxing.

- They would see us have this, kind of, sense of like,

I don't know what I'm doing, I'm kind of scared,

and then immediately teach it to you step by step.

- Richard really creates a beautiful environment to work in.

(dancers chattering)

(dramatic electronic music)

- My favorite part

is being in the dressing rooms during shows

because despite maybe the fact that we're tired

and we're worrying about school or something like that,

it gives us an escape to be in the moment,

get ready for our dance, and have fun with each other.

- That backstage moment,

those are the chill moments that you get.

That anticipation of

this is a big deal professional thing that we're doing.

And the very air inside of Chrysler Hall changes

when you have these professional companies in there.

- It becomes what the world is now about.

Hopefully we can still keep pushing against prejudice.

Tolerance is everything, you know, as far as I'm concerned.

- It's been really fun talking with you.

Thank you so much for coming in.

- That's that, nice. - And I can't wait

to see the performance.

That must be really exciting for the students.

- Yes.

They're confident, I'll be nervous by then.

(both laughing)

(gentle string music)

- There's this beautiful moment where you no longer,

as the person behind the scenes, have any control.

We often say to the students,

"Now the work is yours and what you present is your art.

"It's what you're giving."

(singing in foreign language)

- Going into that piece, dance was not a part of my future

just because my academics are super important for me

and in the middle of that process

is kind of where it started to click

that it's something that can actually have an impact

on this world,

which I would love to do in a professional setting.

(upbeat string music)

- [Gracie] I got emotional at the end of the duet

and I think Eric did, too,

because of the historical inspiration behind it.

(calm string music)

- What was very exciting for me about this project

was coming to work with young people

which I really enjoy doing.

They were absolutely with me

and got it together and they were fantastic.

When I was knighted, the Prince of Whales leant over to me

and said, "I hope this will be an encouragement to you."

Which I thought at 70 was kind of interesting.

It was a very sweet thing to say.

(audience cheering)

This project has been an encouragement to me

because I don't want to retire.

I don't want to just crawl away

and go and sit in an armchair like this and do nothing.

Artists have a creative imagination

which doesn't just peter out.

(audience cheering)

- In 1969, Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook

embarked on a journey that would forever change

how society views African-Americans in the ballet world.

So it only made sense

that on the eve of their 50th anniversary season,

Dance Theatre of Harlem was selected by VAF

to showcase their portrayal

of the first Africans' arrival of 1619.

In doing so, DTH enlisted superstars in training,

Claudia Schreier and Jessie Montgomery,

to bring this powerful piece to life.

Now enjoy the second half of the show, "Passage".

(bright piano music)

- The beautiful thing about this is that from the outset,

we started with two women of color

commissioned by a historically black ballet company

that has changed the face of ballet.

- In America people thought

that black people shouldn't do ballet.

That we didn't have the right temperament for it

and we didn't have the right body for it

and so Arthur Mitchell said,

"Okay I'm gonna make a company, I'm gonna show people

"what's possible when you create opportunity and access."

- The Virginia Arts Festival approached DTH

with this idea for a collaboration

and everything started to piece together.

- I think telling this story about history,

it definitely brings people together.

You have to have an open mind.

- That was really special,

to know that we all were, kind of, on board

to make this become something greater than ourselves.

(bright piano music)

(simple violin music)

- I think it's really amazing that Dance Theatre of Harlem

is 50 years old this year.

My parents said, "You're not leaving college

"to go dance in the basement of some church in Harlem

"to do something that nobody believes should happen."

There was a lot of opposition in the beginning.

White people didn't believe that we belonged

in their art form.

Black people didn't think that we should be doing

the white man's art.

Ballet is about that transcendence.

It really is about what's coming from you in response

to what's happening on the stage.

(suspenseful string music)

(audience applauding)

Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded by Arthur Mitchell

and Karel Shook

and Arthur Mitchell was the first African-American

to be a principal dancer with an American ballet company.

Which is really significant.

This was the 1950s.

- Arthur Mitchell broke barriers

way before it was the cool thing to do.

- He paved the way for so many dancers of color

to be able to pursue a discipline

and an art that historically has been courted off

for people who don't look like me.

- He looked around his home community of Harlem and he saw

that the young people didn't have much of a future.

But he wanted to give them skills like focus

and discipline and perseverance

and he said, "I'm gonna teach them ballet."

- The dancers master these A B Cs

and the teacher or the choreography puts them

into different patterns.

We work in what we call the turned-out position.

This is with your legs going outward

from the hip socket to the side

almost like Charlie Chaplin.

- Myself and the entire ballet community

owe so much to his efforts, his vision

and everything that has come from that since.

(dramatic string music)

- So when I reached out to Anna and Virginia,

immediately they were thinking of who are the great artists

we want to invite to the table for this project

and they mentioned Claudia

and I got a chance to see some of her work

and it was just spectacular.

- I started choreographing pretty early on.

I was about 12 years old

and there was a piece of music that I fell in love with

and I really just felt compelled to move to it.

It's very simple, but that's ultimately how it started.

As long as I can remember,

I have been attracted to the structure

and the groundedness that dance provides for me,

but also the absolute abandon with which I can approach it.

Do your best, can we try that lift once

to see if we can attempt it?

If not, then we'll put something else in.

I feel like if you get this far over,

like, you should be able, yeah.

Even more, I think if you get your hip bone here

then you could just hang on.

There you go.

I did suffer a lot of injuries throughout my training.

As long as I am able to communicate

and convey the distinct movement style

I am trying to impart,

I don't need to have the same physical ability at this point

but I do need to be able to physicalize my personal style

so that can be translated.

I think it's a quick slow,

I think it has to get there and then continue.

- Okay.

- So turn out the top right leg

and then let's keep this elongated.


I'm fusing my technique with my invention.

I'm trying to communicate with those who are in front of me.

So it's just as much about the interaction with someone

as it about what you're doing on your own

before you get in the studio.

(moody string music)

When I start choreographing,

if I have music in hand I listen to it obsessively

and I try to internalize not only phrase for phrase

what I am experiencing,

but I try to find the overall arc.

Not only structurally but also emotionally.

The ballet is somewhere between neoclassical

and contemporary in style

but the inspiration is very much

about the idea of a journey.

(gentle string music)

I think about the idea of a departure

and an arrival

and you can't have one without the other

and so there's always this feeling, for me,

of looking back as we're going forward

and how we can express that through movement.

(slow string music)

For me, music is such an essential part

of the creative process.

- We were having a conversation about this commission

with a presenter in Upstate New York

and he said,

"Oh, there's this wonderful African-American composer"

and I though wow, this is really perfect.

So that's how Jessie Montgomery became part of the process.

(energetic string music)

- There is a portion of the piece that is a piece

that I wrote like eight years ago.

I have performed that piece easily

over a thousand times by now, I'd say.

To see it being performed in a completely different context,

what Claudia did with choreography.

And it's so fun,

the way that she layered the various textures

that are in the music was just, like,

really beautifully done.

So that's one of my favorite parts.

(calm string music)

When I'm working on music,

a lot of the ideas of color and balance

come from my imagination

and also from the many experiences I've had.

I grew up in the Lower East Side in the 80s

and it was kind of chaotic

but it was also a time

when there was a big surge of artists that came in

and took that as an opportunity to rebuild the neighborhood.

My parents were very much a part of that.

I was immersed in that really rich, active culture.

I started composing when I was like 11.

I found that I was suddenly in this other world

of communication.

The feeling that I felt

about writing something down on paper

and allowing these ideas to sort of come through

and get worked out and reworked out and reworked out.

It gave me chills, it was exciting and empowering.

- She has this gorgeous lyrical, flowing quality

to everything that she does.

It's such a special gift for a composer,

especially in this era.

- Playing the music of other people

that's been played for 200 years or 300 years,

the expectations are huge

but with composing there's zero.

I get to do what I want and I think I needed that.

Just an important way to sort of round out your experience.

(moody string music)

- I wish I knew exactly what year it was

that the Virgina Arts Festival brought us to Norfolk.

I think it was sometime in the 80s

so this relationship goes way back.

We knew that this 1619 commemoration was in the works.

We wanted to celebrate the African-American presence,

the strength of women.

We so seldom talk about the women

who are builders of this country.

- There are these overarching themes of democracy

and diversity and opportunity

and we wanted to infuse the work with that

without having it be a pantomime or an explicit narrative.

- One of the themes that I had brought up originally

was the idea of the enduring human spirit.

(tense string music)

- This is such a pivotal point in our collective experience

for so many reasons,

this opportunity to create this work come at the right time.

- For two young, black American women

to be creating the work together

it's not that it hasn't been happening.

It's been happening and happening and happening

but as far as the, sort of, broader community's awareness

and interest in those kinds of collaborations is growing.

- I need to always keep in the back of my mind,

all the ways in which this collaboration

would not have taken place

had it not been for Arthur Mitchell,

had it not been for so many pioneers

in the quest for equality to get us to this point.

(dramatic string music)

This feels like standing on the shoulders of giants

in a really profound way,

and I do not take that for granted.

(string instruments playing)

- Okay, that's 95, 96. - 96.

- I'm really thrilled

to be able to collaborate with the Catalyst Quartet.

This is my sixth season with them.

(dramatic string music)

Being a member of a string quartet

is a significant part of my growth as a musician

and also is my output as a composer.

- What kind of dynamic do you want there?

- It's a water theme.

- [Karlos] So trickle.

- Very, yes, that's nice.

The quartet's been super supportive

of my unique role in the project,

Having to take part in the creative team.

- Do you write tenuto and the accents and all that stuff?

- Yeah, we can probably take more time.

- Yeah, so can we just do from 128 to match our lengths.

- (imitates tempo) Yeah

- [Karlos] All right, so we'll just let you lead

the length - I'll try, yeah.

- Are you starting those up bow?

- Up bow, yeah.

Quartet's like a family

and so having that core musicianship

and the reliability of knowing that you're working

with people that you trust musically is invaluable.

- When do you think that, like, it'll be settled?

- Today, hopefully - Okay, awesome.

(everyone laughs)

- Yeah, during rehearsals this week.

- [Claudia and Jessie] Three, four, five six, seven,

down, two, three,

- [Claudia] lead with the hand, four, five.

- My favorite thing is seeing Claudia and Jessie

figuring out how to work to make this come together

and what choices are being and how they're being made.

- Her music gives me chills.

I listened to the specific score

hundreds of times now, easily.

And there are always points where I just go,

"Oh god, wow!"

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

One, two, three, four, five, six.

You know, as someone who needs to base my work

off of her work,

it's an added inspiration to what I hope to achieve.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

One, two, three, four, five, six, one, two.

- We have Jessie Montgomery's gorgeous music

and because it's a commissioned score,

we have the luxury of Claudia saying,

"Hey, during this section

"would you mind pulling it out more

"so that I can add this or this step?"

- One, is it wrong?

Number six, that's a six.

- It's been interesting

'cause this is Jessie's first time working

with a choreographer

and creating music specifically for a dance.

One two three four five six.

- Normally if I write a piece for orchestra,

I'll send it in, they play it.

But this has been much more going back and forth

and trying to make sure

that both of us are getting exactly what we want

out of it artistically.

(string music) (Claudia snapping)

- Six, seven, eight, and then I have no idea.

- Yeah, you were counting just a little bit faster

than the tempo - Okay

- And some of the beats--

- Having Jessie in the studio has been wonderful.

It's also been incredibly helpful

because some of the rhythms in there

are so complex

- [Claudia and Jessie] Five, six, seven, eight, one.

- So that's?

- I know, it sounds like a one, I know.

So it'll be seven then one.

- Oh.

- What I'm having to adapt to

is the way that people perceive time when watching dance,

which is not something

that I was necessarily thinking about it.

So this affected certain sections of the piece

that needed to be adjusted on my end.

- [Claudia] You need to take off from,

ba ba ba ba ba, here.

- [Jessie] The piece has been tweaked, kind of,

along the way.

Quite a bit, so that both of our ideas can coexist.

Yeah, it's interesting, like where you hear one

is different from where I hear one

and it makes sense movement wise.

(electronic music)

- Virginia, she actually was telling me

about how she would do this ballet.

She would get too into it

and Mr. Mitchell would give her the same notes

that she gave me and it's just so funny.

Oh no, that's Ronald Perry.

One of my favorite teachers,

my elementary school when I was about eight years old,

we went on a field trip to see Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Seeing the performers on stage

just really spoke to me right away

and by the time I was in sixth grade

and I auditioned and I got a full scholarship.

Christopher came in and took classes

and did not necessarily have the easiest path doing it.

- Mr. Mitchell used to make us wear full-soled shoes

but they had a piece of wood in it.

So you really had to, like, push through your feet.

When Mr. Mitchell walked in the room,

everything froze for a second

and then he's like,

"That tiny little boy over there,

"do that skip thing from the corner."

So immediately our relationship started

with him pointing out something that I was doing well,

which I wasn't used to.

I was always being reprimanded at home.

Sandy Phifer!

She was my teacher at LaGuardia.

She's at Ailey now I believe.

- Oh what, maybe I know her then.

I knew I wanted to get into ballet

when I was about in eight grade

and I was like, dance comes natural to my body.

I saw Alvin Ailey perform and then I saw DTH

and I was like, they make it look so effortless.

So I was like, I wanna be able to do that.

- Anthony grew up in Harlem as well

and somebody actually called me up and said,

"You've gotta look at this young man."

And he came to the audition

and he had the opportunity to realize what was there

inside of him.

- One of the most beautiful things about DTH

is their mission to show people

there's such thing as black ballerinas

and black ballerino.

- Mr. Mitchell and that smile.

- Beautiful man.

- Mr. Mitchell always said we are in service to the art form

so being a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem,

it's a huge honor.

Such a powerful legacy.

I still get, like, goosebumps

when we're saying the Dougla Prayer

and I'm like, "Oh my god, I'm in the company."

- Yeah, that's nuts.

- [Christopher] So, like, I have goosebumps right now,

it's like, weird.

(moody string music)

- We have an understanding of the world that we live in

and it's based on the things that we've experienced

and only the arts

can show you something you've never experienced before.

(moody string music)

To me, a ballet dancer is about elegance

and a certain kind of elevation.

Ballet is about the air.

And somebody's who's got that,

it lifts you when you see them move.

And Anthony had that right from the start.

The way that he can hold the stage

it's just natural.

It's just natural.

(audience applauding)

(tense string music)

(audience applauding)

- [Arthur] And one, two, come on get that stomach in,

one, that's it, one, two.

- Arthur Mitchell passed in September

and so it was really a very bittersweet moment

because we were gonna be celebrating him and his vision

very much throughout this year.

- [Arthur] You must have that sense of "I am somebody."

If you can get that inside yourself,

it transmits a beauty that is incredible

and it gives you a positive sense of "I am."

A sense of "look, I have done something,

"I have achieved it and I am proud of the fact

"and if I can do it, why can't you?"

- I still don't understand that he's gone.

Of course he's not gone, he's with us.

He's with us in everything that we do.

He instilled this organization with the kind of vision

that made it possible for us to thrive for 50 years.

- Aside from one other dancer that came first

in summer programs, I'm the only one who was trained

by Mr. Mitchell.

So I take it as, I'm sorry, I'm a little emotional.

Um, to be the one person who walked into this building

as a kid and went through each level of the school

and worked with all of the incredible teachers

that he brought in.

- [Arthur] Breathe, reach out.

- My own journey is to keep his fire alive

but to still find a way to fit into the new narrative

of what this company is.

(gentle string music)

- This project specifically had a launching point

that was so profound in its history

and what it's trying to achieve

that it made me look deeper

into what I was really trying to do.

(gentle string music)

There's no specific character for Anthony,

but as Virginia said to me at one point,

"He's every man, isn't he?"

And I thought that was a really great way of putting it

because he represents man on a journey

in terms of a solitary pathway

and also representing a larger community.

- When I go on stage, something takes over me.

I get hypnotized by the theater

and I just become this, like, vessel of art.

And I wanna be able to portray whatever character I am

to the best of my ability.

(gentle string music)

- When I start to feel it the most is at the end.

We start to see that this pathway that we've created

is intensifying.

We create the illusion of them going on this journey

but it's always cyclical.

(gentle string music)

Emotionally, for me, I think it's the most raw moment.

There's so much there

and you feel like you're on the precipice of something

but you don't know quite what.

(audience cheering and applauding)

- [Narrator] Major funding

provided by the Goode Family Foundation.