Profile: Robert Garland from Dance Theatre of Harlem

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Allen Robertson

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A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Robert Garland is a former principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company and former Resident Choreographer and Administrator for the Dance Theatre of Harlem School.

DTH: In 1985, he joined Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), working under the tutelage of Arthur Mitchell, Founder and Artistic Director. He quickly rose through the ranks to become a Principal Dancer, dancing many roles from the classical and contemporary repertory including: George Balanchine (Four Temperaments, Agon, Serenade), Jerome Robbins (Fancy Free), Garth Fagan (Footprints Dressed in Red), Alvin Ailey (The River),Alonzo King(Signs and Wonders), and Billy Wilson (Concerto in F). He also was an instructor at the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, well versed in ballet technique, jazz, modern, and composition.

In 1995, Mr. Garland was named Dance Theatre of Harlem’s first Official Resident Choreographer, choreographing works for the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s repertory. During this time, he also served as the Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, working closely with children and young adults while over seeing the school’s four programs. During this time he also collaborated on a work for New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, with NYCB Principal Dancer Robert LaFosse, in an evening dedicated to his Mr. Garland’s mentor, Mr. Arthur Mitchell.

Other Work: In the year 2000, Mr. Garland took a brief hiatus from Dance Theatre of Harlem, pursuing work in non-concert dance related fields. During this period, he directed, choreographed, and produced a fashion show during the Fall Fashion Week, for the designer Manalé. He has also freelanced with Angelo Ellerbee’s Double XXposure Firm, under his Artist Development Program, working with New Urban Contemporary Artists including platinum-selling Jaheim.

He has become one of the linchpins of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Now 42, Robert Garland spent the majority of his professional life working in tandem with Arthur Mitchell: first as a leading dancer, then as a choreographer, coach and teacher.

Born in Philadelphia, he began dancing at the age of 13. He’d seen his first performance, it was DTH, when he was ten and wanted to start dancing right then and there, but that notion did not sit well with his father. ‘Then,’ Garland says, ‘when I was 13 my parents got divorced. My mother told me just the other day that her alimony payments were what paid for my initial classes. Within six months I had a scholarship.’

By the time he was 15 Garland had become the youngest member of the Philadelphia Dance Company. After finishing high school he moved to New York City to attend Juilliard where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Dance. He then joined DTH.

‘I had to come to DTH to get that other side of myself as an African-American,’ Garland said in a 2002 interview. ‘Exploring both sides of the hyphen is how I like to refer to it’

His snazzy Return (on this season’s tour) is a big hit wherever the company performs. The dancers, sailing along to tracks by the likes of Areatha Franklin and James Brown, are clearly having a great time with Garland’s dazzling synthesis of classical technique and contemporary urban energies.

‘I like to see dancers, not steps,’ he insists. And because he knows the DTH dancers so well, he can really bring out their personalities. ‘My choreography is made for these particular dancers. I enjoy these dancers, steeped in this community, this culture, and that’s what my work is about.’

We’re sitting in the compact, but welcoming DTH library (one of Garland’s many talents is also that of DTH’s archivist). The company headquarters, some 100 blocks north of Times Square, is a beehive of activity. It’s a Sunday afternoon and Garland has just hosted an informal performance in one of the studios. These regular weekend events are mostly for the local community and meant to encourage a feeling of family. Today the audience got a chance to see a work of Garland’s which the DTH Ensemble, the DTH School’s performance group, is about to take on tour. There was also a gospel choir to bring the show to a rousing close.

The idea behind these afternoons is to fit art into the local landscape, to help people see that dance of all kinds, and particularly ballet, doesn’t need to be foreign or frightening, and can even be fun.

‘These young dancers,’ he says, ‘are the ones who will become the future of DTH, and they are really challenging, as only young adults can be.

‘I danced with DTH for 14 seasons. I stopped because I wanted to choreograph, but it was about time anyway. I was 36, and I’ve no regrets. I was never one for performing actually. I always preferred the process; you know, working in the studio, which a lot of people hate. I love it. It’s so special, making things grow, bringing something to life.

I sometimes call myself a dance architect. I’m building houses for dancers to live in, structures for the dancers where they can go inside, they know where the sofa is, they know where the phone is, and get comfortable.

‘I started choreographing in 1995, with The Joplin Dances.’ (The music of the legendary St Louis ragtime pianist was also used by Kenneth MacMillan for his popular comedy Elite Syncopations.) ‘I was mixing urban contemporary social dancing with ballet,’ says Garland. ‘Then, for the ballet after that, I did it with Bach.’ The result, New Bach, was a shining part of DTH’s last London season. ‘I was having fun playing with the syncopation of Bach. You know, he’s really one of the forefathers of jazz.’

While he was a student at Juilliard he studied all dance styles, which is what happens in the DTH School as well. ‘We want our dancers to be able to do anything; but, yes, I have to admit that my love is ballet.’

During this spring’s DTH tour, Garland will begin work on another project in London. ‘I’m one of the five choreographers doing a programme in the Linbury Theatre this summer [June 23-27]. It’s a celebration of the revolutionary things Diaghilev was doing in the teens and the 1920s. I’m really excited about that and there are some crazy ideas going on. My visual palette is the Kit Kat Klub in Cabaret. I’m choreographing the first half of The Rite of Spring with Tamara Rojo and Jaimie Tapper, who are both really sensational. You know, to me, every time I listen to it, well, that music was the original disco.’