INTERVIEW: Darrell Grand Moultrie featured prominently in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s MLK celebration

Darrell Grand Moultrie has two works represented in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at NJPAC. Photo courtesy of artist.

As a choreographer, Darrell Grand Moultrie is a sought-after name who works with some of the top dance companies in the world. His pieces have been interpreted for every type of stage and numerous performers. From Beyoncé to Broadway to Sacramento Ballet to Dartmouth College, the people and institutions on Moultrie’s resume are extensive and varied.

However, of all the companies he’s had the pleasure to choreograph for, there is probably none more personal than Dance Theatre of Harlem. Moultrie is a Harlem native himself, and he watched the legendary company, which is celebrating 47 years of dance excellence, as a young student in elementary school. Today, he has crafted some of their dances, which will be on view at a special celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The performance, which includes Moultrie’s work and the dances of Robert Garland and Dianne McIntyre, is set for Saturday, Jan. 14 at 8 p.m.

Moultrie, winner of the 2007 Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship Award, will have two dances in the program: Equilibrium (Brotherhood) and Vessels.

Equilibrium (Brotherhood) “was set this summer based on my idea of wanting to do a dance work for three men, and a lot of times in a group work, you have to come together and sing together musically,” Moultrie said recently in a phone interview. “Everyone has to move together, work together, sing together, and I wanted a piece that represented it in a short and powerful way.”

When Moultrie sets a piece, he likes to work with the dancers in the rehearsal studio, matching dance moves as they explore the work. “Some choreographers they do a lot of sketches,” he said. “You can do it that way, where you think it out kind of like a plan before you do it, but with me, the way I work is I like to make it. I like it to [be] organic for the dancers, so what happens is I create it as I go. So I create it on the dancer on their body as I go, so I can cut and paste while we’re moving forward. So it’s something that I usually don’t come in with set movement. … It flows through me. I can see the movement on their body, and I ask them to do it. Then as they do it, I fine-tune to make it better or more challenging as we go. So I kind of work as I go.”

Moultrie’s career has seen many highlights, including being a member of the original cast of Billy Elliot on Broadway, graduating from The Juilliard School and having pieces performed by Ailey II, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Colorado Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre and BalletMet Columbus, among other companies.

When he’s choreographing, Moultrie is conscious of the uniqueness of the dancers he’s currently working with and the need for the work to be universally interpreted in the future. He appreciates different approaches to his movement, especially when a new company or a new generation tackles his work.

“I love for the work to feel organic and tailor-made for the dancer who is the original cast, but I also love to make it where the next generation definitely can do it and put their stamp on it,” he said. “I always love when I do a work, and maybe some years later, another group is doing it. They can still do the same choreography, but I enjoy watching them put their uniqueness on the movement. So I’m never one to make them do it exactly the way the original cast did it, so I love for ballets to have a life that lives on and on and on.”

Vessels will be part of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s program at NJPAC. Photo courtesy of Renata Pavam.

The second piece by Moultrie in the program is called Vessels, a ballet set to the music of Italian composer Ezio Bosso. The work is dedicated to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s illustrious legacy and hopeful future. “Vessels was my first large group work for them,” he said. “Vessels was one that I wanted to [create] with the rebirth of Dance Theatre of Harlem. They had some time off, and then I came in kind of when they had their rebirth. … I grew up watching them, so I wanted to show a piece that had the essence of now, the feeling of where they were now.”

He added: “There’s a vitality they have now with new, young energy, and I wanted to create a group work that just explored all facets of what it takes to be a dancer. There’s a section about love. There’s a section about joy. There’s a section about confidence, and I wanted Vessels to be a group work that celebrated the generation of now.”

In many ways, Moultrie’s work for Dance Theatre of Harlem represents a full-circle moment for his career and personal life. As a young man in the public schools of Harlem, he would watch performances by the legendary company and hear direction from its founder, Arthur Mitchell. The memories of those experiences still burn bright in his mind.

“The curtain would open up,” he said. “It seemed like thousands, but it was the entire company on stage with the founder, Arthur Mitchell. And he would talk to the students, and they were all standing at ballet bars. So to see these beautiful brown people at the ballet bar, something we weren’t used to seeing, it has changed my whole scope of what dance was and what it could be. But to be there now and having seen them literally when I was in junior high school and elementary school, it’s musically exciting. Every time I go into the building, it’s always like I get a tinge of excitement.”

He added: “I’m totally living the dream. With all this stuff going on in the world, I have to constantly say, you have to keep saying thank you. It’s like each day you have to just get up and push out positivity, especially when you get to live your dream, and you look at what so many people are going through around the world and the country. I don’t take it for granted, and I love every second of it. And I appreciate it. But I do, I have to pinch myself sometimes. As soon as you start to complain, you have to pinch yourself again and say wake up.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s work will be part of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at NJPAC on Saturday, Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. Click here for more information and tickets. Moultrie is also gearing up for new work at Dartmouth College, Towson University and Sacramento Ballet. Click here for more information on the choreographer.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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