Virginia Johnson, Eddie J. Shellman and members of Dance Theatre of Harlem in
Giselle (1988). Known as the "creole Giselle," this famous staging by Arthur Mitchell
set the classic European ballet in the community of free black plantation owners in
antebellum Louisiana.

Founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is the oldest black classical company in continuous existence. Initially, the repertory was neoclassical in orientation, with several ballets by George Balanchine, who waived his royalties and took an active interest in the new company, as did Lincoln Kirstein. In the 1980s nineteenth- and twentieth-century works and classics were added, including the much-praised Creole Giselle, Bronislava Nijinska's Les Biches, and Agnes de Mille's Fall River Legend, all of which proved a great personal success for the company's leading ballerina, Virginia Johnson. Works by black choreographers—Geoffrey Holder, Louis Johnson, Alvin Ailey, Alonzo King, Robert Garland, as well as Mitchell himself—have created a truly multiracial artistic profile. With many of its dancers going on to perform with major national companies, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has been instrumental in significantly lowering the color bar in ballet. The company's school, which Mitchell initially directed with the late Karel Shook, has become an international force as well as a major Harlem institution.

Learn more in Dance Theatre of Harlem: A Classical Ballet Company, an essay by Thomas F. DeFrantz.