The choreographer Robert Garland knows it might sound crazy, but for him the introduction of the clock radio was everything.
“It transformed lives,” Mr. Garland said in an interview at Dance Theater of Harlem last month. “It went from buzzer to music.”
And for him, as a child growing up in Philadelphia, that music was “Chaka Khan and Rufus,” he said. “There was Sly and the Family Stone. And there was Stevie Wonder.”
Music is everything to Mr. Garland, who is the resident choreographer at Dance Theater and director of its school, where his specialty is ballet. He was about to premiere his latest, “Higher Ground,” when the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel performances, including a City Center season this month. For Mr. Garland, there’s an eerie similarity to the tone of his new work, set to a selection of socially and politically minded songs by Stevie Wonder, and the moment we’re in now.
“There is a lot of despair about the world,” in some of the Wonder songs he’s using, he said. “He eventually comes out of that. But I’m glad he honestly lays bare what that feels like when you’re participating in a world that’s gone haywire.”
In “Higher Ground” Mr. Garland has created something rare in classical dance: a ballet with a message. Seen during a rehearsal just days before the citywide shutdown, it is a marvel of a work that shows off Mr. Garland’s many choreographic gifts, from his sparkling musicality to his ability to seamlessly weave classical ballet with influences from modern and social dance.
If that sounds familiar, it should. George Balanchine, the Russian choreographer and a founder of New York City Ballet, did pretty much the same thing. Just as Balanchine loved jazz, Mr. Garland loves pop music.
“I’m a Balanchine person,” Mr. Garland said. “I love my dance history.”
That’s not surprising. Mr. Garland was groomed by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer at City Ballet. It was Mr. Mitchell who, with Karel Shook, formed Dance Theater after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to show that mastering ballet had nothing to do with skin color. That lineage also makes Mr. Garland part of the Balanchine tradition.
Mr. Garland, for all of his talent, is still one of the most underused choreographers working today, which is odd in a time that diversity has come to matter so much to the ballet world. Why isn’t Mr. Garland’s phone ringing off the hook?
“I don’t know what that is,” he said. “They know that I’m versed in the classical stuff. I did a pas de deux for Misty Copeland. I’m going to be really frank: I would like to do more work for other companies. It would be great.”
He paused for a moment before adding, “I wonder at times if they think that I don’t want to.”
There were commissions in the past. At City Ballet, he created “Tributary” in 2000 in collaboration with Robert La Fosse, which featured dancers from both City Ballet and Dance Theater, then celebrating its 30th-anniversary season. And four years later, he made a dance for the Royal Ballet in London, then under the artistic direction of Monica Mason.
With City Ballet now under new leadership, two African-American choreographers have recently been invited to create works for the company. Those choreographers, Kyle Abraham and Jamar Roberts (whose piece was to have debuted in spring), have modern backgrounds. And while commissioning them was an encouraging sign that the company was willing to look outward, it also seems to send a message that black choreographers come only from the modern dance world.
Mr. Garland is proof that this is not true.
Though slow, there has been some progress in diversifying the roster of dancers in New York’s two largest ballet companies, City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. But choreographers have had a harder time. In 2017, Dance Theater, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA formed the Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet, a three-year program to support the advancement of racial equity in ballet companies.
The idea was born from discussions among funders and Anna Glass, Dance Theater’s executive director, and Virginia Johnson, its artistic director. Over the three years, participation increased to 20 companies, from 11 — but quietly. “People needed to feel free to make mistakes, to say the wrong thing,” Ms. Glass said.
That the conversation included choreographers and administrators as well as dancers is itself progress. For his part, Mr. Garland would like to develop a program that would help, he said, “choreographers of color, because there clearly needs to be some bridge.”
For it to work, younger choreographers need to know their dance history. “Like I want you to watch ‘Four Temperaments’ 60 times before you even begin to think you can do some of this work,” Mr. Garland said, referring to Balanchine’s 1946 ballet. “Unfortunately, time is money and we don’t have the time that we used to have to kind of sit around.”
Mr. Mitchell created situations that would challenge him. “He made me resident choreographer and school director because he knew I liked the resident choreographer side,” Mr. Garland said, “but the school director — leading people, understanding parents, working with young people, leading a group?”
Those parts were out of his depth. As Mr. Mitchell well knew.
“He wanted me to learn, and now I’m great,” he said with a laugh, “but it took years. He always set me up in a space to learn.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Mr. Garland was always drawn to music. As a child his nickname was “Shotgun” for the way he stacked his vinyl singles on an index finger. “My mother knew very much early on that I needed to dance,” he said. “And my father, I think, was not into it. They divorced and she immediately took me to my first dance classes with the alimony payments.”
He was about 13 and started with ballet. But he was also choreographing for his two sisters. “We would play music and I would dance for them, and we’d get up on my mother’s coffee table and pretend it was a stage, which she probably never knew,” he said. “And I loved, love, love music. I literally had listened to all the Beethoven symphonies by the time I was 15. I was really a music nerd.”
At that age, he was dancing with Philadanco, Joan Myers Brown’s esteemed company, where he experienced a wealth of modern dance and met an extraordinary group of dancers — many of whom joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, including Gary DeLoatch. They were roommates in New York for several years, starting when Mr. Garland left Philadelphia to attend Juilliard in 1979.
“I spent many seasons watching Ailey and at one point, it was a sort of assumed that I would dance with Ailey, but I chose Dance Theater of Harlem,” he said.
He liked the mix of classical and contemporary repertory. At Dance Theater, which he joined in 1985, Mr. Mitchell encouraged him as a choreographer, giving him side projects like creating ballets for “Sesame Street.” During a six-month layoff in 1990, he had Bessie Schoenberg, an esteemed teacher of dance composition — who, for a time, conducted choreographic workshops at Dance Theater — work with Mr. Garland privately on a ballet he was creating for the company’s ensemble group.
“She said, ‘What do you want to do?’” Mr. Garland recalled. “And I said, ‘Mozart.’ She was like, ‘Oh — ambitious.’”
Ms. Schoenberg, he said, taught him about what the power of “center-center on a stage was.”
And he went on to create enduring dances like “New Bach,” a homage to Balanchine with touches of African-American vernacular dances; and “Return,” to recordings by James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Two of his recent works — the incandescent “Gloria,” to Poulenc, and last season’s lively mix of groove and classicism in “Nyman String Quartet No. 2” — are just as accomplished.
But in the case of “Return,” Mr. Garland said he had a regret in how the dancing met the music. Both Franklin and Brown, he pointed out, had been reared in church. “I think that what was the lost in the presentation of ‘Return’ was a sacred and profane element of the African-American cultural expression,” he said. “James Brown’s screams within that music were almost screams to free himself.”
While he usually shies from ballets with political themes, he goes there in “Higher Ground.” He was inspired by the word “sankofa” from the Twi language of Ghana which, he said “basically talks about how you have to look backward in order to move forward.”
That helped him find his music. “Stevie Wonder is the conscience of black America,” he said. “I think for anybody growing up in the ’70s that was black, you got your early political education through Stevie Wonder. That’s how you knew what could happen to you as a person and also the turmoil within the African-American culture.”
What does the music tell him? To Mr. Garland, it’s that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. “It’s part of the human existence to actually repeat — just so that you learn,” he said. “But we are in another space where we need to relearn some things about ourselves as Americans, as black people, as white people.
“We need to go back to the drawing board on the American experiment, and I think Dance Theater of Harlem in its own small way, embodies the beginnings of that conversation.”