2/7/23 O&A NYC MORE HARKNESS STORIES: Keith Lee- First Black Soloist at ABT (American Ballet Theater)

Keith Lee describes his early Harkness experiences as a story book tale. While a student at the High School for the Performing Arts (aka Fame High) this dance phenom received a full scholarship to the Harkness House for Ballet Arts. This experience had a lasting impact and helped shape his own unique artistry as a dance, director, teacher and choreographer. In 1970 Lee made history when he became the first American of African descent to earn soloist status at American Ballet Theater. 

By Keith Lee

My Harkness story begins like a story book. During my formative years as a dance major at the New York High School of Performing Arts (aka Fame High) from 1964-1968, I studied everywhere in the City – New Dance Group, Alvin Ailey, ABT, SAB, and Joffrey. My dance friends recommended that I study at Harkness. I just knew while taking the RR train to East 72nd Street walking up Madison Avenue, turning left onto East 75th St, facing Central Park East, that this experience was going to be special.

I walked up to the four-story building, to its black steel-lined front doors, with clear thick glass, and golden oblong door handles. There was a royal blue Rolls Royce parked in front. As I opened the door, I saw a long hallway with a black and white checkered marble floor, a life-sized bronze dance sculpture of a man partnering a woman, with her hair down. I later learned that the sculpture represented Robert Scevers and Rebekah Harkness.

Art was everywhere. I walked toward Studio A, where I saw The Harkness Ballet Company rehearsing. They were the best dance company I had ever witnessed. The trainees and scholarship dancers were dressed in blue and white and bright yellow. They looked so neat and clean and polished. There was a cafeteria, a lounge with leather couches and chairs, and on every floor, there were studios.

A solid gold butterfly urn designed by Salvador Dali, on display, would one day hold the ashes of Rebekah Harkness. The elevator shaft was painted in jewel tones. There was a quiet dance library full of books and magazines. Adjoining the library was a sound room with an engineer to assist choreographers recording music for repertory requests. Mrs. Harkness occupied a private kitchen and apartment on the top floor.

On the west side of the city, Harkness Annex, provided Broadway dancers with opportunities to study dance. I performed with the Harkness Youth Company at dance venues in the city, including Hunter College and The Delacorte Theatre. We performed at the White House, for President Johnson.

The Harkness Ballet Company performed in a theatre Rebekah Harkness built for them. As if that weren’t enough, she provided a summer retreat at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, to provide dancers and choreographers a place to establish new dance works.

My company, Keith Lee Ballet of Contemporary Arts, consisted of featured artists – Mel Tomlinson, Linda Spriggs, Toni Pierce, Sheri Neher, Melinda Jackson, Thomas Halstead, Robin Tasha -Ford, Fong Bui, Kathy Buccelatto, James Borstelman, Susan Chowning , Robin Shearer, Robert Garland, Christopher Huggins, and Ray Tadio.

Keith Lee Ballet of Contemporary Arts received a land grant in residence at the Harkness House, from 1983 to 1986, shortly before the Harkness House was sold.

An American Ballet Story, a documentary about the the all too short life of the Harkness Ballet, will have it’s New York live screening premiere on April 20th at the New York Public Library Performing Arts – Bruno Walter Auditorium. O&A NYC Magazine. Editor in Chief Walter Rutledge will moderate the post screening Q and A. An American Ballet Story takes us into the stages and studios of the Harkness Ballet through the stories of the dancers who were there. The screening is free but you must reserve seating in advance. 

If you have a stories you would like to share about your Harkness experience please send your articles (250- 500 words recommended) and  photos to walt.harkness@gmail.com.

The auditorium is only 192 seats to reserve your ticket: https://www.eventbrite.com/…/screening-of-an-american…

In Photo: 1) Keith Lee 2) Chalice of Life- Salvador Dali 3) Rebekah Harkness, President Johnson and Harkness Youth Ballet 4) Tina Paul And Teri Rossman- Keith Lee Ballet Of Contemporary Arts (Original Company Members) 5)  Robbin Tasha Ford And Robert Garland (Original Cast)


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