Jacksonville’s Ritz Theatre and Museum is hosting a traveling exhibit, detailing 40 years of one of the first predominantly black ballet companies in the U.S.
The exhibit about the Dance Theatre of Harlem runs from Saturday through the end of July at the Ritz, located in Lavilla.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem company was founded in 1969 and it was not only an artistic outlet, but also a Civil Rights movement, Ritz Museum administrator Adonnica Toler said.
“Arthur Mitchell, one of the founders, he was the first African American (male) principal dancer of a major ballet company and he wanted to prove that African Americans could be classical dancers.”
The dance company allowed kids in Harlem to learn ballet in their own neighborhood, as Mitchell explained in a 2016 PBS documentary.
“We started with 30 children and two dancers. In two months I had 400; in four months I had 800 kids in the school,” he said.
And at the Ritz on Friday, photos of Mitchell and his dancers over the years were being attached to the walls, along with old posters and costumes on mannequins. The exhibit displays more than 250 historical pieces.
Savery Morgan, a Jacksonville native who used to perform at the Dance Theatre of Harlem for a year and a half, was browsing the exhibit.
“The whole spirit of Dance Theatre of Harlem is so important because it’s not just African Americans doing dance, or we have to fight this battle,” he said. “It’s about anybody that wants to do classical art can do it if they put in the time and work.”
Morgan said his favorite Harlem ballet was “Creole Giselle,” a heartbreaking romance story set in
Louisiana. Behind Morgan, there was a large black and white photograph from the Ballet.
“It was the first one that I saw,” he said.
And Anjali Austin, another former Harlem company dancer was touring the Ritz with Morgan. She danced in Giselle.
“I am right here,” said Austin, pointing to a cast photo from the ballet hanging on the Ritz’ wall. “I actually was a little emotional coming through here because so many memories flooded back because what you see is the finished product, what’s unseen is the hours of work.”
Austin danced for the Harlem company for 13 years, beginning in 1977. She now teaches dance at Florida State University.
Since its inception, the professional touring company has performed in 41 states and 40 countries on six continents.
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