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Talking with Dance Theatre of Harlem's co-founder Arthur Mitchell

July 6, 2010 |  4:25 pm
Mitchell “I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer. My motivation was the musicals,” says Arthur Mitchell, one of the 20th-century’s noblest classical dancers, who grew up in New York City in the 1940s enamored of Broadway.

“Vaudeville was incredible. The Apollo, fantastic. Fred Astaire? When I auditioned for the High School of the Performing Arts, I rented top hat, white tie and tails, and sang “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” They took me not because I was good but because I had so much nerve,” he says.

Memories flow freely, and with laughter, from Mitchell, 76, visiting Los Angeles to mark the July 4 closing of California African American Museum’s “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts.” The exhibit celebrated the multiracial ballet troupe, which disbanded in financial insolvency in 2004. (The Dance Theatre of Harlem school still operates at 152nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.)

Courtly in his demeanor and with noble carriage that screams “prince,” Mitchell seems born to entrechat-six. In reality, this son of a Harlem building superintendent was a plucky street kid, sneaking into Lucky’s nightclub to watch hoofers.

“I took over running the family when my father left. I was 12. I shined shoes and delivered meat for a butcher. He paid me in meat for my family. I ran errands for the girls in a neighborhood bordello. Growing up on Sugar Hill, attending Harlem’s incredible annual Easter Parade, I saw ‘class’ all around me.”

A huge contributor to American dance, Mitchell has offered more than 50 years of valiant service to two voracious dance organizations. He was one of New York City Ballet’s sparkling principal dancers during George Balanchine’s prime productive years. His peers: Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Edward Villella, Jillana, Violette Verdy, Patricia McBride and many more. After retiring from City Ballet in 1966, Mitchell co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem, and for four decades ran the pioneering troupe. (He still advises DTH as artistic director emeritus; ballerina Virginia Johnson holds leadership reins).

“I just love to dance. Whatever I could do to dance, I did it. I studied Modern at the New Dance Group, with Pearl Lang, Katherine Dunham, Jane Dudley and Sophie Maslow. I took the subway to study with Murray Louis at the Brooklyn Academy.”

Bruising rejections Mitchell suspected stemmed from racial prejudice ironically drove him to ballet. He figured, “If I took ballet, that would make me so good they couldn’t refuse me.”  

(Mitchell later did do musicals: “When NYCB took breaks, I did “House of Flowers,” “Kiss Me Kate,” and “Carmen Jones.” In a cast of 100, I was the only black in Guy Lombardo’s “Arabian Nights.”)

Life changed for Mitchell in 1948 when he got a scholarship to the virtually all-white School of American Ballet, breeding ground for New York City Ballet. “You are a Negro,” Mitchell remembers Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine’s patron, saying to him. Kirstein was reflecting Balanchine’s vision, written in a now-famous letter dated 1933, that City Ballet should ideally comprise “eight Caucasian and eight colored dancers.” 

Mitchell joined the company in 1955. He was 21. “Jackie Robinson was making headlines in baseball, and I said I didn’t want any publicity about being a Negro barrier breaker. At my first performance, no one knew I was coming out.”

“Jacques d’Amboise was shooting “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” in L.A. and I debuted in his “Western Symphony” role” partnering Tanny [Balanchine’s wife, Tanaquil LeClercq]. When I stepped onto the stage, some guy, right behind the conductor, cried out, “Oh my god! They got a …!”” In telling the story, Mitchell laughs while bleeping out the word. “And the place went crazy. The audience was catcalling, 'Give him a chance!' ”

In 1957, Balanchine set a new work on Mitchell and ballerina Diana Adams – the intimate and intricate pas de deux from “Agon,” a ballet for 12 dancers that’s considered the choreographer’s masterpiece. Now 52 years old, “Agon”’s unapologetic Modernism and its commissioned Igor Stravinsky score (written when the composer lived in L.A.) still challenges.

“Do you know what it took for Balanchine to put me, a black man, on stage with a white woman? This was 1957, before civil rights. He showed me how to take her [holding her delicately by the wrist]. He said, ‘put your hand on top.’ The skin colors were part of the choreography. He saw what was going to happen in the world and put it on stage.”

In more than 50 years, only Mitchell and the just-retired Albert Evans have figured as African American principal dancers at NYCB. The company nonetheless proved a nurturing environment for Mitchell: “I rarely experienced racism at City Ballet even when we toured. The company supported me. Mr. Balanchine always said, “If Mitchell doesn’t dance, New York City Ballet doesn’t dance.”

-- Debra Levine

Photo: Arthur Mitchell. Credit: Ian Foxx

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