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MacKenzie Scott's $10M Gift Makes A Big Impact For Dance Theatre of Harlem's Pandemic Recovery

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

MacKenzie Scott's been giving away billions from her share of the Amazon fortune. This week, a new round - $2.74 billion in grants went to organizations that include the Alaska Native Heritage Center and Broward College in Florida. The Dance Theatre of Harlem - a $10 million gift from MacKenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewitt is the single biggest contribution in that distinguished dance company's half-century history. And it comes after a yearlong shutdown of live performances. Virginia Johnson is the Dance Theatre of Harlem's artistic director. She joins us now from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: It's wonderful to be on. Thank you so much.

SIMON: And congratulations. What does this mean?

JOHNSON: Well, it's thrilling. I think the thing that is most important is that it gives us some breathing room to find a stability that has been elusive for Dance Theatre of Harlem. And it comes at a moment in which we have had to already be really rethinking about how we are doing the important work that we do. But we also now have the room to imagine things that were not possible before. And that is fantastic.

SIMON: How have dancers been getting by?

JOHNSON: Well, so what we've done at Dance Theatre of Harlem is keep our dancers working because, you know, dance is a physical activity. And the body forgets very quickly. For most of 2020, we have been working via Zoom in our homes and our kitchens and living rooms taking class. We see how fast this is all opening up. And so we need to make sure that these dancers are ready to burst onto the stage again when that moment happens.

SIMON: Big gifts often set off internecine debates about what ought to be done in an organization, who should be hired. Should we go in a new direction? And $10 million doesn't last a long time, especially in New York.

JOHNSON: Especially in New York - very expensive city to live in, very expensive art form to be performing in. Ballet, of course, is notorious for being more money going out than coming in. If we are in this place where the gift is being given to change the balance of power, to change the balance of presence in the community in the United States, then we must actually understand that that aligns beautifully with the way that Dance Theatre of Harlem was invented in the beginning to actually bring the African American diverse culture's presence to this art form, to invite more young people of diverse backgrounds into this art form.

SIMON: Have you heard from a lot of people who say, wow, I've got exactly the right idea for you now?

JOHNSON: Yeah. There are a lot of people saying, you can finally do my ballet.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: You can finally (laughter) hire more dancers. What are we going to do with $10 million? When Arthur Mitchell created this company, he used his own money to get started. And Dance Theatre of Harlem has had an up-and-down, up-and-down relationship with financial success. But it's going to be that thing that gets you through those dry periods when there are no performances, and there's no revenue coming in. The second priority, of course, is the art because once we're stable enough to continue, then we have to make sure that we're challenging our artists and we're bringing works to the stage that have not been seen before, works that represent who we are as a diverse company, that we're telling stories that haven't been told and that we're creating more opportunities for people to partake of what Dance Theatre of Harlem is all about.

SIMON: Virginia Johnson, who is the artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, thank you so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.