The Dance Theatre of Harlem is coming to town this week (January 23-26) at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall for a series of Bay Area and West Coast Premieres.
The company was founded in 1968, by Arthur Mitchell in a remodeled garage in Harlem, New York, to “provide African- American children with the chance to dance ballet,” an art form few African- Americans were allowed to participate in, let alone achieve the high professional status as Mitchell, who at that time was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, the first African-American to be a member of a major ballet company.
This year, Bay Area resident Ikolo Griffin makes his debut with the company. The former member of the San Francisco Ballet Company's Corp de ballet, is excited about his first season with DTH as a soloist. This production in Berkeley will be the first time his family has seen him since he and his girlfriend took the train to New York in July of last year.
The first dancer to be recruited from SFBC's Dance in the Schools Program, Griffin who excelled at eight years old in the after school program, then joined the company at 18 as an apprentice, said that what was so “wonderful about DTH is that everyone gets a chance to dance – Mitchell sets a great table, then invites them to eat.”
A smaller company, about 40 members, to SFBC’s 65 or so, the excited Griffin, who signed a soloist contract last fall says though he loves it, he finds dancing so many leads a challenge.
“When you're dancing ensemble you’re dealing more with people in a group, (but) when you dance principal leads you have to command the stage. One of the things I try to do is let the music come from me, and really try to dictate that.”
We’ll be able to see Griffin throughout the DTH run this season at Zellerbach in both programs A & B as soloist in Laveen Naidu’s “Viraa” and in DTH member, Augustus van Heerden's “Passion of the Blood,’ an emotional ballet based on Garcia Lorca's original story ‘Blood Wedding,’” (both Program A: 1/24, 1/26 evenings). He'll also be soloing In Billy Wilson's “Concerto in F,” then perform as a member of Corp de ballet in Robert Garland's “New Bach” (both Program B: Jan. 25 evening, Jan. 26 matinee.)
Griffin says that although he knows the company director was impressed with his work when he hired him last fall, he still needs to show DTH “what he's all about,” as he learns more about the company. “I feel it (goes) both ways,” he said excitedly.
Although the dancer lived in Japan, his stepdad’s home, when he was 11, and is fluent in the language, he was ready for a change, so Griffin’s move to New York is the first time he's been “officially” away from home on his own.
And even though things were hard, especially after Sept. 11, he decided to stay in New York with DTH, where his “very DNA, vibrates at a different level.”
The biracial dancer traveled to Europe and throughout America during his seven years with SFBC, but he didn’t feel “comfortable in all those places, at home, or inspired,” which is something he definitely has felt with DTH.
“Something very dormant in me was aroused, dancing with such a diverse group of dancers. Most companies are not as diverse as the DTH, so one of the things I enjoy is the diversity. I feel very comfortable. I'm biracial and I've never been surrounded by this many biracial dancers in my life. Already I feel a kinship.”
A graduate of San Francisco public schools, the former Corp de ballet member says of his 10 years with the San Francisco Ballet Company though he feels he was “born to dance,” if he hadn’t had the chance to participate in SFBC’s Outreach Program, where he received a scholarship in the third grade, he might not have chosen that direction for his life.
And even when he was 13 and 14 years old, he began to have doubts as peer pressure pulled him in other directions, Griffin, now 27, says his 10 years in the school, then almost another 10 with the company, gave “(him) a good foundation and good training the structure of ballet really offered (him), and (his) talent (or ) my knack for it (I don't know what you want to call it), coupled with hard work and determination and focus and discipline – led to his love for ballet.”
This discipline is something Griffin likes to share with the many children he reaches in a variety of after-school programs that he has participated in.
He says, “I know that not all kids are going to become dancers, but even if there's that one young boy or one young girl who goes ‘wow!’ I had so much fun today, like what happened to me, then that is what makes it worth it, and that's my motivation. I am very much the Pokemon/Nintendo generation. I’m very in tune with that and I feel that I'm able to communicate with them on some levels that they understand as well, whereas sometimes the older generation doesn't (quite) understand where Pokeman or these young kids are coming from. I feel that I have a grasp of their work and what their day to day is. Doing outreach definitely fills my heart. It feels like I'm completing the circle, (and) that's very important to me. I was given the opportunity and to go to the schools and take (dance) to (children) and tell them: ‘hey, it can change your life,’ (that) with focus (and) discipline, anything you can imagine is possible (is very rewarding).”