As a young ballet student in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., I grew up with
the New York City Ballet and the emerging legend of Arthur Mitchell, the
first black dancer to hold a principal position in a major ballet
company. "He has to dance better than any of the other dancers because
he's Negro," my mother whispered to me during an NYCB performance. That
statement may sound like small-town bigotry, but it wasn't. It was worldwide bigotry, and it was fact.
As ridiculous as it now sounds to claim that the African-American body is not
suited to ballet, as recently as the 1960s, it was widely believed that
black dancers' physiques prevented them from achieving the classical
line, and that their feet were too flat for a proper relevi. Arthur
Mitchell irrevocably changed that perception. Through his dancing, his
vision, his courage to fight the compromise of prejudice, he created
the Dance Theater of Harlem, an institution that enriches and expands
the world of ballet dancers and their audiences.
There were no black male ballet dancers when Mitchell was born on March 27, 1934. But there were plenty of poor families in Harlem, the
Mitchells included. When his father abandoned his wife and five children, Mitchell started shining shoes for money and took over the
household budget. At about the same time, he learned to tap dance at the
Police Athletic League glee club. But Mitchell didn't see a dance career in
his future. In 1968 he told Dance magazine, "As a kid, I was up against what every Negro kid is up
against, the widespread attitude that if you're not white, blond, or blue-eyed, you're not part of things."
His defeatist outlook started to change when a junior high school
guidance counselor saw 13-year-old Mitchell jitterbugging at a school
dance. The counselor convinced Mitchell to
audition for the New York High School of Performing Arts, and with a rendition of the Fred Astaire tap number "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,"
he won a full scholarship.
Mitchell's gift was obvious to his instructors, as was the direction of
his dance future. Though he was studying ballet as well as tap and
modern dance, the school staff encouraged him to stick with modern, a
genre that readily accepted black dancers. One teacher, however, saw
things differently. Mary Hinkson, a black former soloist with Martha
Graham's company, spotted a confidence in Mitchell that she believed could transcend
typecasting; she urged him to take ballet outside the school. He won a
scholarship to the Katherine Dunham School of Dance, where he was trained in ballet technique by Karel Shook (developing a relationship that later
became integral to the success of Dance Theater of Harlem). Mitchell also was exposed to Dunham's groundbreaking curriculum.
A highly skilled black dancer with a background in ballet, Dunham was a self-made expert in the anthropology of African dance. Her choreography
combined ballet with the dances of different cultures, and she
became known as "the first pioneer of Negro dance" as a serious art. At her New York City school, students studied not just dance steps, but
the philosophy, sociology and anthropology of the cultures the
dances derived from. In James Haskins' "Black Dance in America," Dunham reasoned: "You must know the entire complex, the musical instruments, the rhythms, the songs and what they're used for
and how they're used, the language, and the interrelationships among all
the elements in this immense cycle that goes with a single dance."
Fifteen years later, Mitchell would embrace the same holistic approach
at his dance school in Harlem. But first, he had some pioneering of his own to do.
After taking a leave of absence from the School of Performing Arts to dance in
Paris, Mitchell graduated from high school in 1952, distinguishing
himself as the first male student to win the school's annual dance
award. Were it not for Hinkson, he might have accepted the modern dance
scholarship that Bennington College offered him. Instead, he chose a
scholarship to the premier ballet school in the country, the New York City
Ballet's School of American Ballet. Lincoln
Kirstein, co-founder of the NYCB with George Balanchine,
openly told Mitchell what my mother later told me: He would have to
work twice as hard as anyone else. With determined dignity and
simplicity, Mitchell explains his decision in "Black Dance in America": "Ballet is a noble way of
dancing. Is nobility a virtue of the white dancer alone, and not of the black?"
There is no physical discipline more rigorous than ballet, and Mitchell
says he was ready "to do in dance what Jackie Robinson did in baseball."
Parents of his white female classmates, however, weren't nearly as
prepared to watch it. Many complained about Mitchell partnering their
daughters in pas de deux. Some even objected to his presence in the
classroom. The school ignored the protests, as did the company, when
Mitchell joined. (Young white girls are the bread and butter of any
ballet school, so why would the fledgling SAB risk its financial stability
for one student? Here's my theory: Kirstein and Balanchine were
dedicated to producing the ultimate American ballet company. Balanchine,
raised in Russia, was well-known for his love of all things American, as
witnessed in his ballets "Stars and Stripes," "Union Jack" and "Western Symphony." To him, Mitchell not only offered American-bred talent, he also represented a part of the American culture. Balanchine, an unrelenting
genius, would not forsake his artistic vision for the benefit of bigotry.)
After two years of study at SAB and a foray on Broadway in Truman Capote's "House of Flowers," Mitchell joined the 7-year-old New York
City Ballet in 1955, debuting in a lead role in "Western Symphony." His color was noted -- New York Times critic John Martin called it "a casting
novelty" -- but for the most part, dance writers seemed to take Mitchell
in stride, praising his abilities. This must have pleased Mitchell, who
asked for no publicity about breaking racial barriers when he became a
NYCB member: "I wanted to get in on my own merit," he told the Times in 1993.
Mostly, Mitchell was cast in NYCB performances regardless of color, with one noteworthy exception. Balanchine created the pas de deux in "Agon" for
Mitchell, which he first performed with Allegra Kent in 1957. "Agon" -- its title translates as "the contest" -- is a plotless and brilliant ballet about the concept of struggle. Clad in white T-shirt and black tights, Mitchell
provided a stark contrast to his female partner's white skin and plain
black leotard. Dance critic Edwin Denby wrote that Mitchell's color "is neither stressed nor hidden; it adds to the interest." But
reminiscent of Mitchell's SAB days, some audience members complained
about a black man partnering a white woman. Balanchine shrugged off the protests. He also
sidestepped requests that Mitchell not perform on
television with the rest of the company, stating that if Mitchell did
not dance, no one in the company would. And yet it wasn't until 1968, two years before Mitchell ended his 15-year tenure with NYCB, that he
was allowed to dance the "Agon" pas de deux on TV. Three years prior to
that momentous occasion -- which occurred on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" -- critic Allen Hughes lamented in the New York Times: "Mr. Mitchell and Miss Kent can dance this duet on theater stages around the world, but they cannot
dance together on television in this country, at least not on
commercially sponsored shows, which includes virtually all shows of
major significance. Why? Television stations in the South would refuse to carry the shows, and advertisers would not like that."
Despite the adversity, Mitchell thrived as a dancer and imbued his signature role of Puck in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with
delightfully energetic mischief. His accomplishments as a NYCB principal
dancer forged a legion of fans, among them the U.S. government, which
asked Mitchell to help create the National Ballet of Brazil, serving as
a kind of international ambassador of the arts. It was during his final trip
to Brazil, in April 1968, that he learned Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Mitchell speaks of that moment in "Black Dance in America": "I could no longer
wait for others to change things [for black Americans]. Here I am
running around the world doing all these things, why not do them at
home? I believe in helping people the best way you can, my way is
through my art. But sometimes you need a splash of cold water in your
face to make you see the right way to do it."
Mitchell was now a man with a plan. No longer content with being the black
exception, he wanted to establish a dance school in Harlem to help kids
build better lives for themselves. Through a stroke of excellent timing,
black soprano Dorothy Maynor invited Mitchell to start a dance program at her Harlem School of the Arts. Within six months, the program was too
big for Maynor's facility, prompting Mitchell to strike out on his own.
Mentors Kirstein and Balanchine introduced him to various foundations,
and in 1969, he received a Ford Foundation grant for $315,000, hastening
the establishment of Dance Theater of Harlem as both a school and a company.
"I never actually started out to have a company," he told the New York Times. "I wanted to
start a school to get the kids off the streets. But I couldn't tell the
young people in the school to be the best they could when they had no place to go. As we began to get grants, we had to match those grants, so I had to have a group earning income. And I was making role models for the kids." Mitchell called on his
former ballet teacher,
Karel Shook, who at
the time was ballet master of a Dutch company, to help direct Dance
Theater of Harlem. Together they set up shop in a basement in Harlem's
Morningside Heights, and Mitchell became a self-anointed "political activist through dance."
Within two months, the school grew from 30 to 400 students. Cleverly,
Mitchell battled the "sissy" stigma attached to male ballet dancers by
consciously not using the word "ballet" in the name of his organization. He relaxed the ballet dress code, so that instead of wearing tights, boys could attend class in cutoffs or jeans.
Their classes, too, were less traditional; they danced to drum beats
rather than Tchaikovsky and were shown the similarities between dance
and basketball. Today, 1,000 students a year enroll in the school,
where, like at Katherine Dunham's school, they study the entire theater
process, including costume design and production, music, lighting and even typing.
Gaining acceptance within the Harlem community proved easier than coping
with the more persistent struggle of finances. Anticipating a $1.7 million deficit, Dance Theater of Harlem took a six-month hiatus in
1970 while Mitchell sought funding. It has been a DTH theme with
variations ever since. A $2 million deficit threatened the company's
existence in 1991. Three years later, Mitchell had to downsize the
company from 52 to 36 members to balance the 1995 budget. And perhaps
most devastating of all for the DTH founder was a strike in 1997 by his
own dancers, who were demanding better pay -- a bitter blow to Mitchell,
who told Dance magazine, "I can't figure out the basic reason for it."
Surely Mitchell, now a master fund-raiser, recognizes the need for money, but the funding he secures is to support the organization. What he gives his dancers is the opportunity to perform. To ask for more seems ungrateful. This attitude should not have surprised the striking
dancers. Seven years prior, original DTH principal member Virginia Johnson described Mitchell this way in Dance magazine: "He's got that energy you can feel from fifty thousand yards away, and he was fighting us also, because he wanted to establish a feeling of commitment behind him. Not in words,
but by behavior he said, 'If you want to be here, it's going to cost you a lot.'"
Mitchell was, however, producing first-class ballet dancers. On Jan. 8, 1971, the company debuted at New York City's Guggenheim Museum. Critic Clive Barnes called the performance "a controlled
avalanche." In retrospect, the term "snowball" would have been more apt,
for despite the shaky finances and dance technique, Dance Theater of Harlem was on its way to becoming a major force. That summer, the company toured in Europe. In the fall, it relocated to larger digs in a renovated garage and warehouse on West 152nd Street. In 1973, it performed a prize-winning television special, "Rhythmetron" (choreographed
by Mitchell), and a year later held its first exclusive New York City
season. The repertory began to include more ambitious productions, and in 1981,
DTH mounted a traditional version of "Swan Lake." But it was the 1984 rendition of the classic "Giselle" that garnered the attention. Dubbed
"Creole Giselle," the ballet takes place in 19th century Louisiana rather
than medieval Germany, with Giselle as the favorite mistress of a
plantation owner. It was honored as the first American ballet to win
England's Laurence Olivier Award for best new dance production. In fewer
than 10 years, DTH was no longer an "avalanche" of dance, but a ballet
company with the finesse of its forebears. Wrote critic Arlene Croce in
1987, "If there is such a thing as Afro-Russian, Dance Theater of Harlem has it."
Mitchell leveraged Dance Theater of Harlem's acclaim to break more
ground. DTH was the first American ballet company to take part in the
U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cultural Exchange initiative, touring Russia for five
weeks in 1988. More significant was a 1992 tour in segregated South
Africa. For the occasion, Mitchell introduced the black children there
to classical dance through a series of workshops. Encouraged by the
young South Africans' enthusiasm, Mitchell quickly established the
Dancing Through Barriers outreach program, an ongoing traveling university of lectures, classes and workshops for inner-city children
in the United States and England.
It's been 30 years since Mitchell founded Dance Theater of Harlem, and he has racked up an armload of awards for it, among them the prestigious
Kennedy Center Honors award in 1993. (In a twist of serendipity, Johnny
Carson, whose television show first broadcast Mitchell in "Agon," was a
fellow recipient that year.) Mitchell has also been designated as a
living landmark of New York City and presented with the National Medal of Arts. He has received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Princeton
and 11 other institutions, and last year he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Hall of Fame.
It is indisputably deserved recognition, all of it, but the real rewards of
Mitchell's accomplishments are the people who have flourished in and
beyond his Harlem classroom -- from Ben Vereen to lawyers to
doctors to DTH company member Bernard McClain, who in 1991 said to Newsday, "[Mitchell] has taught me wondrous things about myself. If he hadn't,
I'd still be delivering water for Sparkletts."
As for Mitchell himself, a dancer now for 50 years, he's still itching to
improve the world through
dance. "What I'd really like to have is an international school of the allied arts," he told Smithsonian magazine. "I'd bring children from all over the world and call it Noah's Art. I'd put together a company with these young people and tour
the world to show that regardless of race, class, creed or color, it's the quality of what you do that's important."