Virginia Johnson’s lifelong devotion to ballet was inspired by Therrell Smith, still going strong at the age of 101. “She was an African-American woman who wanted to study ballet in the 1950s in Washington, but could not find anyone who would teach her,” says Johnson, the current Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. “She was fortunate enough to be able to go to Paris and study, [and then] she came back and opened a school. My mom was one of her best friends and wanted to support her friend’s new business…. And so, at the age of three, I studied ballet with Therrell Smith and fell in love with it.”
A native Washingtonian who initially moved to New York for college, Johnson spent 28 years as a principal dancer with the DTH, before returning a decade ago to help revitalize and lead the storied organization. Now, 50 years since its founding, the company presents a showcase of its diverse repertoire — from Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, “a very special ballet that was created for the original company in 1974,” to Passage, a new work created by the young African-American choreographer Claudia Schreier, featuring music by African-American violinist Jessie Montgomery.
The latter work dovetails perfectly with the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America series and this year’s focus on celebrating women’s creativity and leadership in dance. “There is a huge movement right now to increase the female voice in the field of ballet,” says Johnson, who has teamed up with Lourdes Lopez of the Miami City Ballet. The Kennedy Center presents a special shared program developed by the two artistic directors and featuring both companies, in addition to individual showcases.
“The really wonderful thing about this is that we’re featuring female choreographers,” Johnson says. “And that program has a work specially commissioned by the Kennedy Center and choreographed by Pam Tanowitz. So we have another opportunity to celebrate the female voice.”
The Dance Theatre of Harlem performs Tuesday, May 28, through Thursday, May 30, and for the special program on Friday, May 31, with the Miami City Ballet, which also performs Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $29 to $119. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.