Interview with Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel, Authors of Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration

Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration, captures the iconic company’s fifty-year history. Written by Judy Tyrus, a dancer with the company for twenty-two years, and Paul Novosel, a company pianist for ten years—both of whom became company archivists—the story takes readers on a richly documented journey, illuminating Dance Theatre of Harlem’s (DTH) history against a backdrop of social and political change. The book is gorgeously illustrated with over two hundred and fifty archival photographs, many of which have never been published before. Readers should be sure to check out the online archive for more photos and history.

I sat down with the authors over video to talk about the creative process behind this book.

Liesl Swogger: The story of DTH is a story of collaborative efforts, from its founding by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, to the interdisciplinary approach of DTH’s school, and that continues all the way through the writing of this book. Can you both talk about why you chose to collaborate rather than make it a solo project, and what brought the two of you together?

Judy Tyrus: It was a wonderful collaboration from the very beginning, but we did not know that it would be—we had never worked together before—it was an amazing experience. We both had a huge interest in DTH. There were no other books written about the Company, and it was literally being erased from history by not being included in books about ballet.

At the time I met Paul I was DTH’s archivist. One day I was trying to organize some musical scores. I walked into the studio where Paul had just finished playing for class and asked if he could help me. I needed to find where some orphaned scores should be filed, so I took Paul down to the basement score room where the musical archive was located. Paul, you can finish the story…

Paul Novosel: Being a musicologist and musician, I was amazed by the musical library. I am a music research nerd. We began to converse, and I asked Judy if she needed more help. After volunteering, DTH received a grant for me to inventory and catalog all the programs from 1968 to 2014. And then one day Judy turned to me and said, “nobody’s written the book yet [about the history of DTH] and I think it should be us.” I was like a deer caught in headlights. But we started, and we were a good match for each other. My weaknesses were her strengths, and vice versa. We were both organizers. It was a magical of collaboration. We had talents that complemented each other. It has been a beautiful ten-year journey.

JT: It was ten years from the initial conversations about authoring a book to publication. We worked, over the internet, six to eight hours every day. It was challenging and spoke volumes about our ability to work together. After we wrote the book, I realized there was a gap in dance archiving, particularly for diverse dance organizations, so that was the impetus to start a new company, ChromaDiverse a non-profit specializing in preserving, protecting, and monetizing dance archives.

This book gathers the 50-year history of DTH and puts it in one place. Additionally, there is your own personal knowledge of the company —Judy as a dancer with the company for twenty-two years, Paul as a staff pianist—as well as both of you being company archivists. How did you create a framework to help you curate and guide the story?

PN: The approach I took was modeled on my experience in reading academic music histories. It basically came down to two kinds of outlining, macro, and micro, like what one does in writing a dissertation. The macro were the important things, year-by-year, ballet season after ballet season—within that came the micro-outlining. We knew it would be chronological for a clear line. I had done the inventory of the programs covering fifty years of DTH performances, and those were our primary source and backbone. As we began, other ideas and notions cropped up. We would write it up and say, where does this go? If it was in question, we would go to Esi Sogah, our acquisitions editor, and she would have an idea. She also guided us in structuring the text by using narrative, design pages, side bars, and pull-outs. Organizing the material was always intense, all the way up to our publisher’s hard deadline.

JT: We wanted to include narratives that were funny, moving, inspirational and sometimes sad, the truth of what DTH is. We wanted to create a book with beautiful photos and tell amazing stories, many of which had never been seen or heard.

This blog is called Dead Darlings, a reference to those scenes or characters that a writer loves, but unfortunately do not make the final edit. Do either of you have something that you loved–a scene, anecdote, photo–but had to cut?

JT: The manuscript was 150,000 words when we presented it to our senior editor, Esi Sogah at Kensington. We had to cut it down to 90,000 words. There were 450 photos that had to be cut down to 250. While editing, we had to look very closely because of course we felt that every word was important. I had snapshots, behind-the-scenes photos from when I was with the company. All those sadly, never got in.

PN: I wish I could have taken a deeper dive into archival material and evidence that is in the archive about Arthur Mitchell wanting to have a show on Broadway. We touched on it with St. Louis Woman but there is more to it, much more backstory. Arthur Mitchell seemed to have this want and need, this bug, to make it on Broadway.

I also wish I could have taken a deeper dive into contemporary conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement. I would have loved to include the philosophies of Nina Jablonski, Angélica Dass, Robin DeAngelo, Jesse Jackson, and other African Americans who have put together some wonderful rhetoric concerning skin tone, and what it means to be homo sapiens. Because our story of DTH begins with the Civil Rights Movement and ends with Black Lives Matter, it exposes the need for education that needs to take place regarding the ethnologies of the world and the way we speak. The way we “other” people, or the act of “othering.” This was why we chose not to use the word “race” in our book, or black, because we decided to subscribe to the idea of the sepia rainbow–we are all a tone of brown, from pink, brown, to deep brown.

The life of a company dancer is extraordinarily intimate—in the book Arthur Mitchell refers to company dancers as his children— and I am sure pianists playing for classes and rehearsals observe a lot. How did you pull back and find the narrative and emotional distance required to write this?

PN: The pianists see it all, and we hear it all. I am a people person, and I love speaking with teachers, company members, and students. Then I would have coffee in the back office, so we would get all the news.

JT: At the time we started writing I had not been performing for some years, so I was already a bit removed from the Company–and that helped. My perspective was less as a dancer and more as an archivist.

When I sat down with Arthur Mitchell to discuss the book he said, “I don’t want you to write about me, I want it to be about the Company.” That led us to write this overarching story about the evolution of the Company and school.

PN: I came to DTH in 2005 right after the hiatus began. At that time Arthur Mitchell was active with the ensemble and school. In the early years, there were little family groups Arthur put together, so students were surrounded by all this support, so they looked at him more as a father figure. I respected him as an artist, colleague, and a huge creative force. The evidence was in the archive—his masterful work. As a history writer I had a responsibility to be objective and truthful. That is how I distanced myself and how I looked at my writing.

The visual layout of the book places the history of this ballet company directly in conversation with its social and historical context. Chapters open with plates that list a few of the social or political highlights of the time period, beginning with the assassination of MLK which serves as the catalyst for Arthur Mitchell to create DTH. Can you talk a little bit about the creative process that landed on this particular presentation of DTH’s history?

JT: The company, based in Harlem, was founded during the Civil Rights Movement. We thought that our readers would understand the significance of what the Company accomplished and the difficulties that they experienced if we provided more context. So, the opening page of each chapter became a perfect place to do that.

PN: Yes, there are simple timelines that precede every chapter. Who does not love to see a timeline of history? We want to know what happened when, and who made the history. It jogs the reader’s memory and provides a thinking bridge between the material and historical events and invites the reader to make their own connections. If they are older, they will think about where they were at that time. It puts everything in context and in order in your mind, and makes the material come alive. And our editor was a genius with pull-outs and design pages so that a reader could literally read the book in any order, in sections and chunks, and still get the thrill of the story. You do not necessarily have to read it from beginning to end. It is all about providing the reader with an enjoyable experience.

Thinking about the arts being situated in a social and cultural context, you make a distinction between tradition and traditionalism. To illustrate, you tell the story of Precious Adams, who in 2018, secures a position with English National Ballet, performs in tights and shoes that match her skin tone, and is promptly derided on social media for “disgracing the tradition of ballet,” (the tradition being pink tights and pink shoes, because ballet is a Eurocentric artform and pink matches a Caucasian skin tone). This example illustrates how traditionalism, “holds people bound to cultural bias as the norm.” Teasing apart tradition, which is something to preserve and carry forward, and traditionalism, which holds an artform back because it prevents change and excludes people, is a necessary critical process that enables an artform to be dynamic and evolve. As archivists, what are a couple of key questions you ask yourselves to critically assess something, be it choreography, costuming, a casting choice, to decide whether it is something that needs to be preserved as is, or contextualized and modified to bring it forward?

JT: We talked through hundreds of ideas and stories when we were writing. Every single one was analyzed and had to be deemed necessary for the narrative, truthful and interesting but not hurtful. We wanted to find things that were not mentioned before.

PN: For me, the question is: is anybody suffering? Traditions can be great because they evoke something in us about being human, about belonging. Traditionalism can be hurtful, like pink tights which were designed to imitate Anglo and European fair skin under chiffon. When we talk about a dancer donning brown flesh toned tights, she embraces her own skin tone and is proud of it. Also, the entire unbroken line of the body, from the tip of the toe to the tip of the finger can be seen complete. This became the DTH trademark look. And if all dancers owned their skin tone in this way, we would see a beautiful sepia rainbow on stage rather than a mechanized line of carbon copies, all the same color, all the moving in tandem. That is not how the world looks. The individuality of each dancer comes front and center. Ballet is in flux with that whole conversation about pink versus skin tone tights.

I discovered this book because Phil Chan (author of Final Bow for Yellowface) posted on Twitter that the book had not gotten any book reviews, despite this being the only comprehensive history of DTH in print. I was thinking about the parallels between the industry sides of ballet and publishing and how they both skew toward a white, Eurocentric creator. Can you talk a little about your path to publication, any challenges you faced or, conversely, people or institutions that were particularly helpful?

JT: It was extremely exciting when we sent out proposals because we were fortunate to have interest from three publishers. A book about DTH had not been written so there was a lot of excitement around the unpublished photographs. Writing a publishing proposal takes time and patience. We had to get it right. We could probably write another book about that.

PN: It was supposed to come out in 2019 but came out a year later and we used every extra minute. I recently came back from a family visit it where people were telling me it was the perfect book at the perfect time because it came out when BLM was summiting and it was so topical, and it is beautiful, so it can be a gift. It is reaching a diverse audience and that is a good thing.

Toward the book’s end there is a gorgeous quote from Virginia Johnson, the current Artistic Director, where she says, “Ballet is a complex and beautiful human endeavor, the experience of which can change lives. Yes, ballet does have a color. It is the rich color of humanity—in all its shades. That is what Dance Theatre of Harlem is about—opening minds to what is possible.” When thinking about what is possible, is there anything that either of you would like to see happen in the next several decades, either with DTH or the art of ballet more generally?

JT: There are many voices today that support the idea that everyone can do ballet regardless of skin tone. Classical ballet companies need to be more multicultural. Additionally, there is a need for more diversity behind the scenes, as costume designers, lighting designers, sets designers, choreographers—more experimental work, more support for artist’s creativity, and more innovative programs. We need to tear the envelope open but also push it forward. I would like to see younger dancers honor those that came before them. I would like to see more flesh tone tights everywhere, and the elimination of pink tights.

PN: Because art reflects life, ballet—especially in America—reflects where we are at with multi-culturalism. We need to have naked conversations about multi-cultural progress on a global level.

Judy Tyrus, founder, and CEO of ChromaDiverse, Inc. is the 2021 recipient of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Diversity Award, which recognized outstanding contributions in advancing diversity in the archival profession. Formerly a principal ballet dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), Tyrus was the archivist and curator for DTH’s materials in Taking the Stage at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and served in the same capacity for several other successful exhibitions. In 2019, Tyrus founded the nonprofit ChromaDiverse, Inc. whose mission is to assist diverse dance organizations, many of which lack financial resources to protect their legacies. ChromaDiverse provides these organizations a flexible, low-cost, secure, cloud-based digital archive management service (aka “Digital Vault”) for performing arts content. In addition, Tyrus is a coauthor with Paul Novosel of a new book, Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration published in October 2021, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work Non-Fiction. Find out more about Judy on Facebook, and Instagram.

Paul Novosel has had a forty-year career as a pianist, organist, playwrite, and composer, performing as a keyboardist in major venues throughout the United States and Europe, including Carnegie Hall. He graduated summa cum laude as a music composition student of John Corigliano, was a dramatist student  of Broadway’s William Hoffman, and received his MA in music from The University of Limerick, Ireland. He has served as assistant archivist and staff pianist at Dance Theatre of Harlem, and is the co-founder of ChromaDiverse, Incorporated. He lives in New York City. Find out more about Paul on his website.

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