The Dance Theatre of Harlem combined movement, melody and history in their latest performance, “Higher Ground,” which paid tribute to Stevie Wonder and his influential music. Before performing at the Michigan Opera Theatre last month, the dance company took a visit to Hitsville U.S.A. to find some inspiration from where Wonder got his start back in the day.

One Detroit’s AJ Walker met up with the dance company at the Motown Museum where Resident Choreographer Robert Garland and dancers previewed parts from their “Higher Ground” performance. Walker talked with Garland and senior dance member Lindsey Donnell about the inspiration they found, the reason for choosing Wonder’s music as a basis for their performance, and the parallels tropes they see from Wonder’s music in causes like Black Lives Matter today.

Full Transcript:

AJ Walker, One Detroit Contributor: The Dance Theater of Harlem combined movement, melody and history at the Motown Museum, when they previewed some of the dance moves for their upcoming show at the Michigan Opera Theater.  

Robert Garland, Resident Choreographer, Dance Theatre of Harlem: The premiere is a ballet to the music of Stevie Wonder. The title of it is “Higher Ground,” named after that great, great song by Stevie Wonder. And here we are in Studio A, where Stevie Wonder got his start. It is really quite remarkable to be in this space. I can smell the artistic intention and the artistic energy of the past years flooding forward and moving us forward into the future. 

AJ Walker: Robert Garland, resident choreographer of the troop, said they chose the music of Stevie Wonder because his music has a message.  

Robert Garland: Now, we need his music more than ever. It is very rare you hear artists now that address, in full frontal fashion, the things that are going on at the time. And I thought that Stevie Wonder’s music was appropriate for this moment.  

Robin Terry, Chairwoman & CEO, Motown Museum: I mean, you listen to “Higher Ground,” and you watch their performance and it is just, it’s moving. Because so much of it is still so relevant.  

Robert Garland: The music that was created during the seventies, post-civil rights, was music that was ready to address absolutely everything about what wasn’t happening after the great work of Dr. King and his assassination.  

AJ Walker: The song “Higher Ground” was written in 1973, just a few years after the civil rights movement. It was on Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” album, which featured tracks that addressed social injustice.  

Robert Garland: I think we’re in that moment right now, too, with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is exactly the same tone, exactly same politic, just 50 years later.  

AJ Walker: Lindsey Donnell, Senior Company Member with the Dance Theater of Harlem, says the recent social justice protests had an impact on her passion for dance, especially this upcoming performance.  

Lindsey Donnell, Senior Company Member, Dance Theatre of Harlem: Living through the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s really, I think it’s changed the way all of us approach the piece and feel about the significance of the work. And that it’s just, it’s so meaningful and like to represent a time and bring that forward into today, kind of with the same message. I think it is really special for our company.  

AJ Walker: Their trip to the Motor City has been several years in the making. It was pushed back indefinitely due to the pandemic.  

Robert Garland: I’m happy to return to Detroit in 2021, because actually this ballet was to have premiered in 2020, in March, but we had to go back to New York City and wait until this moment due to the pandemic.  

AJ Walker: But now that they’re here, they say the wait built up anticipation and the history in this building filled them with inspiration and purpose.  

Lindsey Donnell: Just being here in Detroit, coming to the Motown Museum, I think it’s really going to continue to inform our performance in January.  

Robert Garland: It’s good to see the dancers get an opportunity to interact with their history. We can’t lift the museum up and take it to New York, so we brought the dancers to Detroit.  

AJ Walker: Robin Terry, CEO of the Motown Museum, says their presence, coupled with the legacy of legendary Motown artists, was momentous.  

Robin Terry: Having Robert Garland and these really talented dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem right here in Detroit, in the belly of Motown in Hitsville, USA, to not only be inspired, but to give inspiration. I mean, their dance was absolutely stunning. And for these young people to have an opportunity to be here in Detroit, at the place where Stevie Wonder got his start, where he was inspired to greatness. For them to have that opportunity as they prepare to do their performance to “Higher Ground” was just something extra special.  

AJ Walker: After their performance preview, the dance troupe took a tour of the museum. While this performance is a chance to prepare to dazzle the crowd during the show to come.  

Robert Garland: Of course, practice makes perfect.  

Lindsey Donnell: Our preparation with Mr. Garland. You know, we learned the steps, and then we continue to practice it, continued to fine tune all the details.  

AJ Walker: They say dancing in the Motown Museum dazzled them as well, and will be an inspiration when they take the stage.  

Lindsey Donnell: The more that we learn about the history of Stevie Wonder himself and the Motown legacy, I think has just been really wonderful to like, continue to add that and to make it more special, more personally meaningful, which I think will come out in our performances in January.  


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