The ballet world needs to let go of its 19th century ideals and build companies that reflect the world of today, says Virginia Johnson of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

For the former dancer and now DTH artistic director, this means more black dancers in every classical ballet company.

Arthur Mitchell formed Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 with the idea of opening doors for dancers of colour, beginning with a ballet school in Harlem. The company eventually gained international stature and showed it could perform classical dance at the highest level. But in 2004, the troupe went on hiatus amid financial difficulties.

Just last week the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper posed the question "Where are all the black ballet dancers?" and concluded there are very few in classical ballet companies.

"It’s as if Dance Theatre of Harlem had never existed," said Johnson, who is currently rebuilding the company and will launch its first full season in nearly a decade. The new slate is set to begin in April 2013.

"The progress that Dance Theatre of Harlem made as a company, in changing people’s minds about what this art form is, has been forgotten and that’s what makes me sad," she said in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show..

"It seems to me that, in that eight years, we haven’t had the inspiration for young dancers of colour to pursue a life in this art form."

Ballet needs an image update

According to Johnson, ballet shouldn't be synonymous with a line of identical, pale-skinned dancers fading into the background.

She loves classical ballet, including works such as Swan Lake and Nutcracker, but says this 19th-century image of the ideal dancer needs to be updated.

"We look at ballet as this thing that was about the past. We really need to understand that if we’re going to be a real vital part of the current dialogue of our time, we have to actually bring forward what our current time looks like," she said.

Artistic directors around the world are looking for dancers of colour, Johnson said, because they know their companies risk irrelevance if there are no black faces onstage.

However, it will take time for community to change, she said, in part because it takes 10 years to train a dancer to perform at an elite level. Many of today's dancers of colour have become discouraged about classical ballet, she added, because few of them make it onstage and their career opportunities are rare.