In the early days of Dance Theater of Harlem its members, charged with proving to the world that Black dancers could master ballet, needed a certain pluck. “It was a group of young dancers that went out and carried their own lights and did lecture-demonstrations and started performing,” said Laveen Naidu, 45, the organization’s executive director.

That scrappy image has served Virginia Johnson well. The elegant artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem — and its star ballerina for 28 years — Ms. Johnson, 63, was reminded of such humble beginnings last spring, when she held auditions for the rebirth of the company. (It had been forced to go on hiatus in 2004 when it announced its $2.3 million debt.) As Ms. Johnson put it, she had stars in her eyes. But she was in for a surprise.

“I was really shocked at how few African-Americans auditioned,” she said. “And that was the moment when we were looking in this room, and it was like, ‘No, but where are the Black people?’ ”

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