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Cornish Connects With Dance Theatre of Harlem

Theresa Alexander '17, a senior in the Dance Department at Cornish and an intern in the College's Communications Department, traveled with her entire department to the Northwest African American Museum to see its exhibition on Dance Theatre of Harlem. She filed this report, capped by the revelation that the company was co-founded by a Cornish alumnus, Karel Shook.

With Cornish’s Dance Department celebrating its 100th year, the dance students have been reveling in the rich history of their school. On March 3, 2017, the entire dance department ventured over to the Northwest African American Museum to witness a traveling exhibition that showcased Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “Forty Years of Firsts.” They were greeted by special guest Virginia Johnson, a founding member of, and former soloist for, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Johnson is now the artistic director of the globally acclaimed dance company. Before the Cornish dancers explored the exhibit, Ms. Johnson graciously shared some insights on her performance experience with Dance Theatre of Harlem, stating that the “ability to dance and express these well known ballets with a new sense of culture” opened her eyes about what dance means and how she could impact audiences.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969, as an institution that offered, initially, ballet and dance classes with the intent of offering positive social change and boosting morale within the current political climate. The creation of Dance Theatre of Harlem was in direct response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Arthur Mitchell, a co-founder of the company, made it his mission to humanize the black American during a time when many people were lacking hope. This activist stance through dance allowed Dance Theatre of Harlem to grow from classes being taught outside of a church into an established company that incorporated the African diaspora into the Euro-centric world of ballet.

Moving through the exhibition, the students could see archival black-and-white photographs of company members shot during class and of soloists in full performance. Display cases presented beautifully ornate costumes from Dance Theatre of Harlem’s original productions, such as a gold embroidered tutu from Le Corsaire.

Browsing the photos on the wall, I saw a photo of two men conversing during a rehearsal. One of those men was the  aforementioned Arthur Mitchell and the other was Karel Shook, Mitchell’s partner in founding Dance Theatre of Harlem. As well as appreciating those founders’ social-political breakthroughs in and through ballet, Dance Department students also discovered that they shared an artistic lineage with Dance Theatre of Harlem through Karel Shook. A Seattle native, Shook was a protégé of Nellie Cornish, studying on scholarship in the 1930s at what was then The Cornish School. His dedication to ballet carried him to a performing career with several European dance companies and from thence to become a ballet master.  He returned from Europe in order to co-create Dance Theatre of Harlem with his student, Arthur Mitchell. As an institution that values and grows from its history, Cornish Dance celebrates the innovative work of Karel Shook and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and strives to continue to present dance as a means for social change.