DTH’s Michaela DePrince

Dance Theatre of Harlem headlines NJPAC’s annual MLK Celebration.

New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark has honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. every year for the past 18 with an inspirational program involving live performances and arts education. Dance Theatre of Harlem returns this year to headline the celebration.

In previous years, the programming highlighted gospel music. But last year organizers invited DTH to perform, due in part to its history: Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded the company in 1969 as an artistic response to King’s assassination.

The audience response to the company’s performance was overwhelmingly positive, so it was an easy decision to ask DTH to return in 2015. “We thought it was important to support their work, and we wanted to create a tradition,” NJPAC president and CEO John Schreiber says. “There is a great pride among Newark citizens in seeing a dance company that really looks like the community, and one that has dancers who are performing at the highest level of the artform.”

DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson says the company will perform three works especially important to its history. George Balanchine’s Agon has a central pas de deux that was created on Mitchell; Robert Garland’s Return is a quintessential DTH piece featuring classical ballet set to music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown; and past-carry-forward by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis is a 2013 work that focuses on the Great Migration and themes of persistence and the impulse toward freedom. “This celebration is such a positive way to celebrate a great man,” Johnson says. “There is a lot of excitement and joy among the company and the audience.”

NJPAC’s faith-based advisory committee suggested Pastor Jerry Sanders of Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, NJ, as this year’s speaker, because of his service to his local community and in international humanitarian efforts. He is a life member of the NAACP and a member of the Summit Interfaith Council and the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention.

The programming continues the following day with “Embodying the Dream,” two hours of family-friendly arts workshops, including a DTH-led dance class. The celebration kicks off January 16. DT

For more: njpac.org

Hannah Maria Hayes is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy of NJPAC

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