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Dallas Black Dance Theatre to salute its longtime venue

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By Manuel Mendoza, Dallas Morning News

As she gives an informal tour of Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s new Arts District headquarters, founder Ann M. Williams points out the geometric designs on the floor. The shapes echo dance movements, which she felt would benefit her company members as they walked around the building.

That kind of attention to detail has kept the troupe going for 32 years, the city’s oldest continuously operating professional dance company. Last year, after renovations were completed on the old Moorland YMCA, the company moved in a few blocks from where it will begin performing this fall, the new Wyly Theatre at the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

But as one door opens, another closes. So after 25 years at the Majestic Theatre, Dallas Black Dance will give its final performances at the downtown venue this weekend. It closes out the long run with some old favorites, a couple of new works and an appearance by guest dancer-choreographer Camille Brown.

“We’re looking again to a new era,” artistic director Williams says during an interview in her third-floor office.

For dancer Kevin Jackson, who’s been with the company for five seasons, the move is bittersweet. “I think of the Majestic almost like dancing in your living room,” he says. “You’re so comfortable. That stage is home for me.”

For “Finale of All Finales: A Dallas Black Dance Theatre Tribute to the Majestic Theatre,” the company will perform the previously mounted pieces Night Run, Bruce Wood’s Smoke and … and Now Marvin by the late former company member Darryl Sneed; the premiere of former member Edmond Giles’ The Covenant; and a new solo by Night Run choreographer Christopher Huggins for Melissa M. Young, the company’s associate artistic director.

The idea for Dallas Black Dance Theatre began germinating in 1974 when Williams, a graduate of the master’s dance program at Texas Woman’s University, was teaching at Bishop College, now Paul Quinn College. Arthur Mitchell, star and founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first black ballet company in the United States, was taking part in a ballet festival in Fort Worth. She brought him to Bishop to teach for a couple of days.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you start a company?’ ” Williams says.

“I hadn’t even thought of a company then. My dream was to go off and have my own dance school. I said, ‘Well, we’ll think about that.’ ”

Two years later, as she was helping Mitchell start a dance program at El Centro College, she began recruiting dancers from area schools.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre debuted on a Sunday afternoon in 1977 at the Dallas County Convention Center.

The company performed two pieces by former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballet master William Scott, who had been asked by Williams to create new works for her fledgling troupe.

As much savvy community activist as dance maven, she realized early that success would only come if she cultivated community leaders and funding sources. Plato Karayanis, then general director of the Dallas Opera, became a role model when she served on the opera board.

Williams says she figured out that she didn’t want to create a money-starved organization “but really build an institution. I said, ‘I am not going to die at Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and when I die, I don’t want Dallas Black Dance Theatre to die,’ so I started building.”

Williams plans to retire in 2012 after the company’s 35th season, but she has plenty to do in the meantime. So far, the economy hasn’t affected Dallas Black Dance’s $1.5 million annual budget, which comes from ticket sales, touring, sponsorships and government grants. In addition to the 12-member troupe, Williams runs a semiprofessional group, DBDT II, and a dance school, the Dallas Black Dance Academy.

“We’re prospering,” says dancer Janine N. Beckles, who has been with Dallas Black Dance for four seasons.

“We’re in this new building. It’s like the economic situation hasn’t even hit us. People still want to hire us.”

 Manuel Mendoza is a Dallas freelance writer.

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Written by Symphony

May 24, 2009 at 2:13 pm

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