Sadly, Arthur Mitchell, The renowned American dancer/choreographer who created the first African American classical ballet company has passed away on Wednesday 19 September 2018.
Mr. Mitchell paved the way for African American dancers, his contribution to dance wasn’t just luck, yes he was a very talented man, but that talent came from sheer determination and opportunities. As Mr. Mitchell said.
“You see, I’ve been told, and I’m tired of hearing, that I’m an exception. It’s not a matter of exception. It’s just that I had the opportunity.”
Arthur Mitchell. B: March 27th 1934, New York City, New York, U.S. – D: September 19th 2018, Manhattan, New York City, U.S. Age 84.
Mr. Mitchell auditioned with a Fred Astaire inspired tap number to “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” for New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, subsequently Mr. Mitchell was accepted and he excelled in various disciplines of dance.
Lincoln Kirstein (co founder with George Balanchine, City Ballet) was in the audience for the graduation performance of Mr. Mitchell. After the graduation performance Mr. Kirstein was impressed with the 18 year old (1952) Mr. Mitchell who was awarded a scholarship to the School of American Ballet.
Three years later, Mr. Mitchell received a telegram from Mr. Kirstein.
“WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN COMPANY AS PERMANENT MEMBER STARTING CORPS DE BALLET MINIMUM SALARY . . . LINCOLN KIRSTEIN.”
In 1955 Mr. Mitchell became the first African American male to be made a permanent company member of the New York City Ballet, under the direction of George Balanchine. Mr. Mitchell became a Principal Dancer in 1962 and stayed with NYC Ballet until 1970.
Mr. Mitchell’s debut role, November 8th 1955, was in “Western Symphony,” Fourth Movement: Rondo, partnering ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq.
Other roles Mr. Mitchell performed in that Mr. Balanchine had choreographed specifically for him, Agon, 1957, a Pas de Deux with Diana Adams, and (Puck) A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1962.
The Pas de Deux with Mr. Mitchell and Miss Adams came at a time when segregation was strong and resentful in the community.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mr. Mitchell spoke of his role in Agon.
“Can you imagine the audacity to take an African-American and Diana Adams, the essence and purity of Caucasian dance, and to put them together on the stage?”
After learning of the death (April 4th 1968) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Mr. Mitchell was inspired to provide opportunities to children to study dance, especially those living in Harlem.
In August, 1968, in a gym at Dorothy Maynor’s Harlem School of the arts, at 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue and using his own saving to start a ballet school, Mr. Mitchell commenced teaching classes’ to approximately 30 students, along with Karel Shook a former ballet master from American Ballet and Dutch National Ballet.
Mr. Mitchell spoke about the commencement of his ballet school.
“Once they realized I was trying to do the best I could and help, that wasn’t an ego‐tripping do-gooder, they came along with me. We’re not saying everyone has to be a ballet dancer. Do your own thing, but have the technique to compete.”
By 1969 along with Co Founder, Karel Shook, Mr. Mitchell used his own saving, including having received financial assistance from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel and the Ford Foundation, to start/found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
In fact, the first ballet choreographed by Mr. Mitchell for Dance Theatre of Harlem was Ode to Otis, Premiering February 02nd 1969, with dancers Lydia Abarca, Gerald Banks, Walter Raines, Samuel Smalls, Derek Williams and Arturo Vivaldo.
Dance Theatre of Harlem was incorporated February 11th 1969, and would become the first permanent African American ballet company in America.
As the school grew in numbers, they had to move to accommodate the keen interest amongst the community/dancers. Finally in 1971 Dance Theatre of Harlem settled into their current location 466 W 152nd St, New York.
In a 1974 interview with New York Times, Mr. Mitchell spoke about the struggles and misconceptions of African Americans in dance.
“Nine‐tenths of the kids I have were told they couldn’t be ballet dancers. And there was no outlet for them to go to. That’s one of the masonr why Dance Theater had to be created.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem first performed at Jacob’s Pillow in August 1970.
Dance Theatre of Harlem had its official debut January 8th 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City.
Mr. Mitchell choreographed various ballets for Dance Theatre of Harlem, such as the 1973 television special, Rythmetron (1968). Fete Noire, 1971, Creole Giselle, 1984, which was the first American ballet to win a Laurence Oliver Award for Best New Dance Production.
Dance Theatre of Harlem toured successfully nationally across America and internationally, such as Yugoslavia, Russia, South Africa, Italy, Amsterdam and Belgium.
Mr. Mitchell shares his wisdom of dance.
“What does dance give you? The freedom to be who you are and do what you want to do.”
Mr. Mitchell was a pioneer of his time and his hard work and dedication to dance/choreography in his community should never be lost.
Did You Know?
In 1993 Mr. Mitchell became one of the youngest ever recipients to be awarded the Kennedy Center Honors.
In 1968 New York City Ballet added Slaughter on Tenth Avenue to their repertoire. This was first performed by Arthur Mitchell and Suzanne Farrell.
Mr. Mitchell also has numerous credit for appearing on TV, such as, The Revlon Revue, 1959, Belafonte, New York 19, 1960, The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, 1983, Motown 30: What’s Goin’ On! 1990.
Mr. Mitchell was also a choreographer for the movie The Cotton Club, 1984.
Mr. Mitchell’s Broadway credits include Four Saints in Three Acts, 1952, House of Flowers, 1954, Noël Coward’s Sweet Potato, 1968. Mr. Mitchell was Assistant to the Choreographer on Shinbone Alley, 1957.
Featured image: Arthur Mitchel – Photo from the web.