Walking through Detroit’s beloved Motown Museum on a special Tuesday morning tour, Robert Garland, resident choreographer of the world-renowned Dance Theater of Harlem, couldn’t help but think of Arthur Mitchell and the parallels with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Mitchell, the New York Ballet’s first black principal dancer, founded the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Like Gordy, Mitchell forged his own path.
They “did their own thing, didn’t listen to the naysayers and spent their own money to be honest,” Garland said with a laugh.
Tuesday’s museum visit was a fitting stopover for Garland and three dancers from the Dance Theater of Harlem as in a few weeks they will be performing Garland’s new piece, “Higher Ground,” consisting of five songs from one of the most popular songs. big Motown stars, Stevie Wondering.
“Higher Ground” – which takes its name from the song of the same title by Wonder in 1973 – was supposed to premiere in Detroit in March 2020, but COVID-19 then struck. Postponed by nearly two years, the piece will finally premier on January 22 and 23 at the Detroit Opera House before heading to New York next spring for the City Center Dance Festival. Tickets are on sale now (see box for more details).
Garland, who was the company’s principal dancer until 1999, actually traveled to Detroit in early March 2020 and recalls it was his last stop before returning to New York for the lockdown. The parents of Dance Theater of Harlem executive director Anna Glass, who live in Detroit, picked them up at the airport.
“It was a very strange moment because it was his parents that I last saw when we had to go back to New York,” Garland recalls.
“Higher Ground,” which the New York Times called “wonder,” is made up of five Wonder songs from the 1970s, starting with “Look Around” from 1971. It also includes “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” ” Village Ghetto Land “and” Saturn “before ending with” Higher Ground “. Garland wrote the ballet for six dancers and it lasts 26 minutes.
Garland said the music of the 1970s “was ready to answer absolutely anything that didn’t happen” after King’s assassination.
“There were a lot of questions,” Garland said. “Stevie Wonder – and every artist of the day – was instrumental in my political imagination when I was seven and eight years old. Who can forget ‘Live for the City’? There is a world out there he’s talking to me about. “
Lindsey Donnell, a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem who performed part of the new ballet at the museum on Tuesday, said that since they were prepping “Higher Ground” before COVID, the extra time allowed them “to really dive into the work and get more history. “
“Everything we’re learning, just being here in Detroit, coming to the Motown Museum, it’s really going to inform our performance in January,” said Donnell, who is now in his 10th season with the theater.
Tuesday’s visit comes as the Motown Museum is actually closed to the public for tours as it is in the midst of a sweeping $ 55 million renovation and expansion plan. During the brief tour of the Dance Theater, they toured the entire museum before stopping to chat with reporters in the iconic Studio A in Hitsville USA. They also planned to visit three art schools in Detroit to conduct master classes.
And even with the long hiatus before “Higher Ground” premieres, Garland and Donnell both said it changed their approach to the play and their perception of its meaning.
“It’s so important to represent an era and present it today, sort of with the same message, is really important to our business,” said Donnell.
Harlem Dance Theater
January 22 and 23 at the Detroit Opera House
Tickets start at $ 29.