Students Helping Revitalize Dance Theatre of Harlem

The co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem came to the SMU campus Thursday (Nov. 9, 2006) to officially launch a new partnership between SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts and the Theatre.

Master dance class conducted by Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Executive Director, Laveen Naidu, are working with students from the SMU “Mustangconsulting” group to help revitalize the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s touring company. Ten students from the dance and corporate communications/public affairs divisions will be working on the revitalization project.

During his Dallas visit, Mitchell also conducted a master class for SMU dance students; several students from Dallas' Booker T. Washington High School and members of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre also participated (see accompanying video). The master class gave young dancers a rare opportunity to work with a legendary dancer.

This visit is not Mitchell’s first to SMU. The university is one of the first places in Texas Mitchell performed in the 1970’s, creating in him a special fondness for SMU. On this visit, Mitchell said that the new partnership between two such seemingly different institutions is actually a perfect match. “SMU and the Dance Theatre of Harlem” share much in common, especially excellence,” said Mitchell. As he conducted a master dance class on Thursday, Theatre Executive Director Naidu guest lectured in a Corporate Communications and Public Affairs class.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem remains the only African-American dance company dedicated to the art of classical ballet, but lately the famed organization has been struggling to stay alive. In 2004, faced with a $2.5 million deficit, the Theatre was forced to cancel its touring season, lay off its 44 dancers, and close the doors to its professional studio school.

The school was able to reopen in 2005 after a citywide effort raised $1.6 million in donations, and it was operating in the black this past year. However, the touring company is still in limbo.

Enter stage right the college students. While in New York City for an annual “Bishop to Broadway” visit, students from SMU’s Division of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs spent some time with the Theatre’s assistant director of development. Two of the students (who, as part of an SMU team known as “Mustangconsulting,” had just finished a consulting project with Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett) got the idea to take on the Theatre as this year’s project. Their professor agreed, and now 10 students from the dance and corporate communications/public affairs divisions will attempt to give new direction to the future of the Dance Theatre.

The students have four goals for their project:

  • Develop a clear organizational narrative
  • Analyze current trends among donors and patrons
  • Identify potential donors and patrons
  • Develop branding and messaging strategies

They’ll spend the year studying non-profit organizations and U.S. dance history and then spend the summer in Harlem, providing arts consulting for the Theatre. The dance students who are part of the team also will take classes at the DTH during the summer.

The SMU professor in charge of this project is Dr. Maria Dixon, an assistant professor of CCPA. She established the “Mustangconsulting” group last year. Dr. Dixon, like the Meadows School, has at least one personal connection to the Dance Theatre. Her student assistant, Kemi Ogun, studied there when she was in high school. Although she is not part of the Mustangconsulting group, she is also a CCPA major and a Dance minor.

This partnership is uniquely suited to SMU. The university has the interdisciplinary strengths – in both dance and communication arts – to take this project on, and project organizers hope to draw on those strengths and put them in the service of the greater artistic community.

Arthur Mitchel of the Dance Theatre of Harlem
Arthur Mitchell
The SMU dance program focuses on restaging, documenting, and performing classic dance masterworks, and that is the heart of the DTH as well. Another resource for the project is Meadows faculty member Leslie Peck, who according to the Meadows School, is the only university dance professor in the country with the authority to restage Balanchine works – and Arthur Mitchell himself has a Balanchine background.

Mustangconsulting, which was implemented in 2005 for work with Southwest Airlines, is a collaborative project in which faculty and students work together in a research intensive partnership to address the communication needs of a particular client. The students take theory and class work and apply it to a real-world situation. They will spend a two-semester period (spring and both sessions of summer 2007) exploring one of two Meadows courses in either CCPA or Cinema & Television.

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of this endeavor, rather than utilizing solely students of the Division of CCPA for the communication arts module, this project will include majors from the Division of Dance as well. Every student, regardless of disciplinary emphasis, will be required to attend class lectures on ballet and U.S. dance history, taught by Dr. Shelley Berg, as well as the basics of non-profit organizational structure and governance, taught by Dr. Dixon.

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