The Dance Theatre of Harlem is one of the finest dance companies in the world, using imaginative choreography to perform classical ballet.

But the company also does something equally as important as it tours the world: Its dancers spread the message that the arts are life-changing.

Founding dancer and current artistic director Virginia Johnson said in a phone interview that visiting schools to work with young people is an essential part of their mission.

“I’ve come to believe that dancers can change the world,” Johnson said.

Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, Johnson said her parents were supportive of the arts and enrolled her in dance and music classes. She never practiced the piano, but Johnson fell in love with dance. She danced professionally until she was 47.

“One of the things the arts do is allow us to dream and they give us the capacity to reach our goals,” Johnson said.

Without that introduction to the arts, young people can’t see a future in the arts.

Johnson was a founding dancer with Harlem Dance Theatre in 1969 when Arthur Mitchell, shocked at the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., founded a classical ballet school in a poor and predominantly black New York neighborhood. It was the same neighborhood where Mitchell was raised. Mitchell was able to recruit renowned European dance teacher, Karel Shook, to became the company's first instructor.

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Chyrstyn Fentroy

Chyrstyn Fentroy is a performer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which comes to the Alberta Bair Theater on Friday, Oct. 6.

Joy of the unexpected

They began practicing in a church, then moved into a converted garage on 152nd Street, a space they still use as a studio. The company made its debut two years later at the New York Guggenheim Museum, the same year dancers toured Europe.

Johnson said the company has helped open eyes to the fact that there is color in the dance world. She said they felt like pioneers in the beginning, reveling in the joy of the unexpectedness of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

This trip west of the Mississippi River is a rare one for the troupe. The company will perform at the Alberta Bair Theater twice on Oct. 6. The first performance is a one-hour student matinee beginning at 12:30 p.m. The second performance begins at 7:30 p.m. and features three complete dances. Tickets for the evening performance range from $25 for students to the top end of $55 for adults.

Jan Dietrich, executive director of the ABT, referred to the performances here as historic.

“Beyond the positive impact on our local dance community and students through the workshops and student matinee performance, our area residents have the opportunity to see world-class artistry right in our own backyard,” Dietrich said.

The University of Wyoming hosted the Dance Theatre of Harlem at a two-week residency, culminating in a performance there on Sept. 29. They also performed Oct. 3 at the WYO Theater in Sheridan, Wyoming.

This is the first time in the company’s 48-year history that they performed in either Wyoming or Montana.

The 16-person dance company will open with an unnamed ballet by Darrell Grand Moultrie, followed by the piece, “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,” which is choreographed by Ulysses Dove with music by Arvo Part.

Johnson said Dove’s dance is a moving look at dealing with grief.

“You’re going to see a distinct dance that uses classical ballet as its central language. But it’s classical ballet as you’ve never seen it. Six dancers will explore the capacity we have to live in the face of grief.”

The evening will end with “Return,” a dance that has become an international favorite, choreographed by Robert Garland and featuring music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Get ready to see something bold, something joyful and something that fuels the imagination.

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Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.