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Mitchell, Arthur

Arthur Mitchell

1934

Choreographer, dancer

Members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem call Arthur Mitchell the "Pied Piper of Dance." Mitchell, one of the first blacks to succeed in the field of classical ballet, founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 in an effort to provide minority students with a chance to learn and perform classical ballet. He has been leading the troupe ever since and has presided over an extensive ballet school, worldwide tours, and performances of both classical and modern dance. Boston Globe contributor Christine Temin called Mitchell "a preacher of sorts," an artist whose "gospel is one of discipline, hard work, education, goals set and then met. His own goal, of course, was to show that blacks could dance classical ballet. He realized that aim with his Dance Theatre of Harlem, now famous for its energy, purity of style, dedicated dancers and diverse repertory."

Since its founding, Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem has included a school educating hundreds of would-be dancers, as well as a group of professionalsgraduates of the schoolwho perform. The school is located in Harlem and draws many of its pupils from that struggling neighborhood. Many are on scholarship, and all are encouraged to pursue a well-rounded education. Mitchell told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his goal is to use dance "to build better human beings." He added: "The young people today, particularly minority kids and inner-city kids, they need some kind of motivation as well as compassion. We live in a very technological society. Very few people are spending time to develop the soul."

Raised on Modern Dance

No oneleast of all Arthur Mitchellwould have predicted that he would become a classical ballet star, an artist of the first rank in one of the nation's best companies. He was born and raised in Harlem, and his early interest in dancing and dramatics was encouraged by his school teachers. As a teenager he enrolled in New York's High School of the Performing Arts, a public institution made famous by the television show Fame. There he excelled in jazz and modern dance but was determined to try his luck with classical ballet.

He came to the demanding art form relatively late, and of course he was one of only a few black students in his classes. Instructors told him he had little chance of breaking into the all-white ranks of classical ballet, but he persisted. Mitchell told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he chose ballet because of "prejudice." He explained: "I wasn't getting work, and I thought I'd better get classical technique, because then I'd be so good I couldn't be turned down." He soon landed a scholarship with the School of American Ballet, where he became the student of renowned choreographer George Balanchine.

In 1955, Balanchine invited Mitchell to join the New York City Ballet. Mitchell told the directors of the company that he didn't want to work with them if a massive publicity campaign would be built around his being the first black to be so honored. "I didn't want any Jackie Robinson stuff about breaking the color barrier," he said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I wanted to be tested on the merits of my dancing. Balanchinefelt the same way. Of course I knew I was the only black person there, but there was no issue about it. No problem. Balanchine cast me in ballets like he cast everyone else." The imaginative Balanchine even created a duet called Agon specifically for Mitchell, a work Philadelphia Inquirer dance critic Nancy Goldner described as "Balanchine's profoundest exploration of partnering as both a physical exercise and a metaphor of the tensions in love relationships."

Became Pioneer in Ballet

As a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Mitchell traveled all over the world giving performances. He was the first black man to perform classical ballet in the Soviet Union, where ballet is considered a pinnacle art form. The dancer told the Washington Post that his Soviet hosts "were mind-boggled at the sight of a black man dancing classical ballet." In fact, Mitchell began to find such special notice annoying. He knew that other black dancers could perform ballet as well as he could, if they were allowed the same opportunitiesespecially dance scholarshipsthat helped launch his career.

Mitchell was in a taxicab on his way to the airport in 1968 when he heard over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. The news stunned Mitchell, and it proved a turning point in his career. He had planned to continue his work with the National Ballet Company of Brazil, which he had established two years earlier. Instead, he told the cab driver to turn around and head back into Harlem. Mitchell told the San Jose Mercury News: "After hearing of King's death, I came back to Harlem and set up a dance school in a garage. Nobody said I could do it. I started with 30 kids and two dancers, and inside of four months I had 400 kids."

Mitchell wanted to give black children another route out of the ghettoone through the arts, especially dance. He also wanted to prove, once and for all, that classical ballet need not be the exclusive realm of whites. "What we started out to do, to prove, was that black children, given the same opportunity as white children, could be great dancers," he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We proved that in just a few years. Then we wanted to take that company of black dancers and showcase them in the city, the country, the world, to show people what black artists could do. We did that."

At a Glance

Born on March 27, 1934, in New York City. Education: Attended New York High School of the Performing Arts; studied under choreographer George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet.

Career: New York City Ballet, principal dancer, 1955-69; National Ballet Company of Brazil, founder, 1966; Dance Theatre of Harlem, co-founder, with Karel Shook, and artistic director, 1969.

Memberships: National Endowment for the Arts Council; President's Commission on White House Fellowships; Market Theatre Foundation, South Africa, honorary patron; New York State Council on the Arts; New York City Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission.

Awards: National Medal of Arts, 1987; Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to the performing arts, 1993; American Academy of Arts and Letters, Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts, 1994; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1994; inducted into Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Dance Hall of Fame, 1999; Heinz Award, 2001; Dance/USA Honors, 2004.

Addresses: Office Dance Theatre of Harlem, 466 W. 152nd St., New York, NY 10031. Web www.dancetheatreofharlem.com.

Formed Unique Dance Company

The energetic Mitchell had strong opinions about how he wanted his company to perform. He sought to preserve an American dance repertory, calling attention to the unique contributions this country has made to ballet. Over the years his repertory has included balletic versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and John Henry, the latter based on the American ballad pitting a man against a machine. He also drew widely on the works of Balanchine, his former mentor. Mitchell told the Chicago Tribune: "In the early days, I figured, 'What better way to grow but to dance Balanchine's repertoire?' But it's the eclecticism of the American dancer that is his and her strong pointtheir versatility. I was criticized as being too eclectic, not knowing what kind of company I wanted. We did jazz and classical, for instance." Mitchell defended his actions by pointing out that his productions appeal to a broad base of people, rather than those who merely like classical ballet. "Notice we used the word dance and not ballet," he said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "That other word tends to turn people off. Then, we chose theater, so audiences will know that we want to attract more than just the dance public. We're after the public."

Initial fears that the nation's dance enthusiasts would not support an all-black ballet troupe soon vanished, and Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem forged a reputation for both innovative modern works and imaginative staging of old classics. "When the curtain goes up, the first thing the audience sees is that the dancers are black," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "If they don't see it, something is wrong. The real questions are, 'What are they doing? And, how well are they doing it?' Dance Theatre of Harlem is a major ballet company." In the Philadelphia Daily News, Mitchell explained that his decision to cater to mass tastes is actually one of the company's strengths. "Dance Theatre of Harlem is an example of American classicism," he said, "And by that I mean that we stress eclecticism and strong dramatic elements. There's a difference between being classic and being classical. When you are classical, you are an imitation of an original. But if you're a classic, you are unique. This notion I got from Balanchine."

The Dance Theatre of Harlem has toured in the United States and abroad. The company even mounted a full-length ballet for the Public Broadcasting System, an honor accorded only the finest of troupes. A high point came in 1987, when the group made a two-month visit to the Soviet Union for a series of performances. Not only was Mitchell invited to teach in Russiathe first American artist of any race to receive such a requestbut his company met full houses and standing ovations everywhere it went. Mitchell told the Chicago Tribune: "In Leningrad, on the stage where the Kirov Ballet performs, they came onstage and gave us a champagne salute. It was like being a rock star. I think that brought the company as artists to another level, that feeling of acceptance by the best." Over the years the company has grown increasingly eclectic in its dance offerings, leading some to charge that it is watering down classical ballet. Yet Mitchell has remained a staunch defender of eclecticism and innovation, and the Dance Theatre has consistently won accolades for the variety and interest of its performances.

Struggled through Financial Crises

Beginning in about 1990, the Dance Theatre of Harlem faced the first in a series of recurring financial crises. The cancellation of several performance dates, the withdrawal of some corporate sponsors, and a continued shortfall in government funding for the arts led to a significant reduction in revenues. Mitchell was forced to lay off his dancers and most of his staff and cancel much of the 1990 season's roster. At the time Mitchell told the press that the move did not mean the end of the company; instead, it was a means to keep the operation from plunging into deep debt. Fortunately, new corporate sponsors appeared to help defray expenses, and the troupe was back in business by early 1991. Mitchell was far from relieved, however. "We have taken our first step back on land," he told the Boston Globe. "But if we take a wrong step, we'll be back in the sea."

Through the mid-1990s and into the 2000s, financial troubles became distressingly commonplace. In 1995 the company was forced to reduce its staff of dancers from 52 to 36, and in 1997 dancers walked out, charging that the company had become overly reliant on apprentices and non-union dancers. In 2004, the company was forced to slash its budget in half, to about $5 million, and to lay off the remaining paid employees. "Dance Theatre is in an unprecedented crisis,"' a dance executive close to the company told Crain's New York Business. "The obligations they've incurred and the financial mismanagement are so over the top that, unless there's a big infusion of cash, the place will probably close down in a month or two."' By the fall of 2004, however, the company remained in business. The Dance Theatre of Harlem's financial problems are not unique in an age when federal funding of the arts is dwindling and corporate sponsorship must be spread broadly across numerous charities and organizations. Mitchell has been able to sustain his dance company because of its fine reputation, his own personal charisma, and the laudable goals of the company and its satellite school. By the mid-2000s, however, many supporters of the company charged that Mitchell must relinquish control to professional managers if the company is to survive.

Whatever the future of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, there can be no doubt that Mitchell created one of the most important American dance companies in history. A true pioneer, Mitchell has always recognized the importance of the arts. "Put the arts first, give us the children first, and there won't be any AIDS or homelessness," he once told the Boston Globe. "The kids you see in the street get their hope from something chemicaland it doesn't last. Our society doesn't have enough real hope. That's what the arts give you." Mitchell sees the dawn of the twenty-first century as a precarious time for art, and hence for the health of American youth. Voicing his concerns in the Boston Globe, he expressed a fear that someday, "people [will] wake up and realize there is no art in their lives. And then it will be too late."

Sources

Periodicals

Arizona Republic, November 23, 1987.

Boston Globe, November 11, 1990.

Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1989.

Crain's New York Business, April 19, 2004.

Dance Magazine, July 1994; October 1996.

Jet, September 27, 1993; August 9, 1999.

Lexington Herald-Leader, June 25, 1989.

Nation, January 3, 2000.

Orlando Sentinel, March 11, 1990.

Philadelphia Daily News, November 17, 1987.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1987; February 13, 1991; June 14, 1991; July 24, 1991.

San Jose Mercury News, February 14, 1988.

Washington Post, March 14, 1989; March 13, 1990.

On-line

Dance Theatre of Harlem, www.dancetheatreofharlem.com (September 14, 2004).

Mark Kram and

Tom Pendergast

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Mitchell, Arthur 1934–

Arthur Mitchell 1934

Dancer, choreographer, dance company founder and director

At a Glance

Started His Own School

Company Faced Troubled Times

Sources

Members of the Dance Theater of Harlem call Arthur Mitchell the Pied Piper of Dance. Mitchell, one of the first blacks to succeed in the field of classical ballet, founded the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969 in an effort to provide minority students with a chance to leam and perform classical ballet. He has been leading the troupe ever since and has presided over an extensive ballet school, worldwide tours, and performances of both classical and modern dance. Boston Globe contributor Christine Temin called Mitchell a preacher of sorts, an artist whose gospel is one of discipline, hard work, education, goals set and then met. His own goal, of course, was to show that blacks could dance classical ballet. He realized that aim with his Dance Theater of Harlem, now famous for its energy, purity of style, dedicated dancers and diverse repertory.

Mitchells Dance Theater of Harlem includes a school of some five hundred would-be dancers, as well as a group of professionalsgraduates of the schoolwho perform. The school is located in Harlem and draws many of its pupils from that struggling neighborhood. Most are on scholarship, and all are encouraged to pursue a wellrounded education. Mitchell told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his goal is to use dance to build better human beings. He added: The young people today, particularly minority kids and inner-city kids, they need some kind of motivation as well as compassion. We live in a very technological society. Very few people are spending time to develop the soul.

No oneleast of all Arthur Mitchellwould have predicted that he would become a classical ballet star, an artist of the first rank in one of the nations best companies. He was born and raised in Harlem, and his early interest in dancing and dramatics was encouraged by his school teachers. As a teenager he enrolled in New Yorks High School of the Performing Arts, a public institution made famous by the television show Fame. There he excelled in jazz and modern dance but was determined to try his luck with classical ballet.

He came to the demanding art form relatively late, and of course he was one of only a few black students in his classes. Instructors told him he had little chance of breaking into the all-white ranks of classical ballet, but he persisted. Mitchell told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he

At a Glance

Born March 27, 1934 in New York City. Education: Attended New York High School of the Performing Arts; studied under choreographer George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet.

Principal dancer with New York City Ballet, 1955-69; took numerous major roles, including Puck in A Midsummer Nights Dream and lead in Agon. Founded National Ballet Company of Brazil, 1966; with Karel Shook, founded Dance Theater of Harlem, 1969. Choreographer, instructor, producer, and director of Dance Theater of Harlem, 1969. Troupe has made numerous tours of the United States and Europe, including the Soviet Union, and has staged a full-length ballet for Americas Public Broadcasting System.

Addresses: Office 466 W. 152nd St., New York, NY 10031.

chose ballet because of prejudice. He explained: I wasnt getting work, and I thought Id better get classical technique, because then Id be so good I couldnt be turned down. He soon landed a scholarship with the School of American Ballet, where he became the student of renowned choreographer George Balanchine.

In 1955, Balanchine invited Mitchell to join the New York City Ballet. Mitchell told the directors of the company that he didnt want to work with them if a massive publicity campaign would be built around his being the first black to be so honored. I didnt want any Jackie Robinson stuff about breaking the color barrier, he said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I wanted to be tested on the merits of my dancing. Balanchine felt the same way. Of course I knew I was the only black person there, but there was no issue about it. No problem. Balanchine cast me in ballets like he cast everyone else. The imaginative Balanchine even created a duet called Agon specifically for Mitchell, a work Philadelphia Inquirer dance critic Nancy Goldner described as Balanchines profoundest exploration of partnering as both a physical exercise and a metaphor of the tensions in love relationship.

As a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Mitchell traveled all over the world giving performances. He was the first black man to perform classical ballet in the Soviet Union, where ballet is considered a pinnacle art form. The dancer told the Washington Post that his Soviet hosts were mind-boggled at the sight of a black man dancing classical ballet. In fact, Mitchell began to find such special notice annoying. He knew that other black dancers could perform ballet as well as he could, if they were allowed the same opportunitiesespecially dance scholarshipsthat helped launch his career.

Started His Own School

Mitchell was in a taxicab on his way to the airport in 1968 when he heard over the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. The news stunned Mitchell, and it proved a turning point in his career. He had planned to continue his work with the National Ballet Company of Brazil, which he had established two years earlier. Instead, he told the cab driver to turn around and head back into Harlem. Mitchell told the San Jose Mercury News: After hearing of Kings death, I came back to Harlem and set up a dance school in a garage. Nobody said I could do it. I started with 30 kids and two dancers, and inside of four months I had 400 kids.

Mitchell wanted to give black children another route out of the ghettoone through the arts, especially dance. He also wanted to prove, once and for all, that classical ballet need not be the exclusive realm of whites. What we started out to do, to prove, was that black children, given the same opportunity as white children, could be great dancers, he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. We proved that in just a few years. Then we wanted to take that company of black dancers and showcase them in the city, the country, the world, to show people what black artists could do. We did that.

The energetic Mitchell had strong opinions about how he wanted his company to perform. He sought to preserve an American dance repertory, calling attention to the unique contributions this country has made to ballet. Over the years his repertory has included balletic versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and John Henry, the latter based on the American ballad pitting a man against a machine. He also drew widely on the works of Balanchine, his former mentor. Mitchell told the Chicago Tribune: In the early days, I figured, What better way to grow but to dance Balanchines repertoire? But its the eclecticism of the American dancer that is his and her strong pointtheir versatility. I was criticized as being too eclectic, not knowing what kind of company I wanted. We did jazz and classical, for instance. Mitchell defends his action by pointing out that his productions appeal to a broad base of people, rather than those who merely like classical ballet. Notice we used the word dance and not ballet, he said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. That other word tends to turn people off. Then, we chose theater, so audiences will know that we want to attract more than just the dance public. Were after the public.

Initial fears that the nations dance enthusiasts would not support an all-black ballet troupe soon vanished, and Mitchells Dance Theater of Harlem forged a reputation for both innovative modern works and imaginative staging of old classics. When the curtain goes up, the first thing the audience sees is that the dancers are black, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. If they dont see it, something is wrong. The real questions are, What are they doing? And, how well are they doing it? Dance Theater of Harlem is a major ballet company. In the Philadelphia Daily News, Mitchell explained that his decision to cater to mass tastes is actually one of the companys strengths. Dance Theater of Harlem is an example of American classicism, he Said, And by that I mean that we stress eclecticism and strong dramatic elements. Theres a difference between being classic and being classical. When you are classical, you are an imitation of an original. But if youre a classic, you are unique. This notion I got from Balanchine.

For twenty seasons the Dance Theater of Harlem has toured America and abroad. The company even mounted a full-length ballet for the Public Broadcasting System several years ago, an honor accorded only the finest of troupes. A high point came in 1987, when the group made a two-month visit to the Soviet Union for a series of performances. Not only was Mitchell invited to teach in Russiathe first American artist of any race to receive such a requestbut his company met full houses and standing ovations everywhere it went. Mitchell told the Chicago Tribune: In Leningrad, on the stage where the Kirov Ballet performs, they came onstage and gave us a champagne salute. It was like being a rock star. I think that brought the company as artists to another level, that feeling of acceptance by the best.

Company Faced Troubled Times

Early in 1990 the Dance Theater of Harlem faced a major crisis. The cancellation of several performance dates and the withdrawal of some corporate sponsors led to a significant reduction in revenues. Mitchell was forced to lay off his dancers and most of his staff and cancel much of the 1990 seasons roster. At the time Mitchell told the press that the move did not mean the end of the company; instead, it was a means to keep the operation from plunging into deep debt. Fortunately, new corporate sponsors appeared to help defray expenses, and the troupe was back in business by early 1991. Mitchell was far from relieved, however. We have taken our first step back on land, he told the Boston Globe. But if we take a wrong step, well be back in the sea.

The Dance Theater of Harlems financial problems are not unique in an age when federal funding of the arts is dwindling and corporate sponsorship must be spread broadly across numerous charities and organizations. Mitchell has been able to sustain his dance company because of its fine reputation, his own personal charisma, and the laudable goals of the company and its satellite school. Mitchell offers art as a solution for the ills of the ghetto. Put the arts first, give us the children first, and there wont be any AIDS or homelessness, he asserted in the Boston Globe. The kids you see in the street get their hope from something chemicaland it doesnt last. Our society doesnt have enough real hope. Thats what the arts give you. Mitchell sees the dawn of the twenty-first century as a precarious time for art, and hence for the health of American youth. Voicing his concerns in the Boston Globe, he expressed a fear that someday, people [will] wake up and realize there is no art in their lives. And then it will be too late.

Sources

Arizona Republic, November 23, 1987.

Boston Globe, November 11, 1990.

Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1989.

Lexington Herald-Leader, June 25, 1989.

Orlando Sentinel, March 11, 1990.

Philadelphia Daily News, November 17, 1987.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1987; February 13, 1991; June 14, 1991; July 24, 1991.

San Jose Mercury News, February 14, 1988.

Washington Post, March 14, 1989; March 13, 1990.

Mark Kram

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Mitchell, Arthur

Arthur Mitchell, 1934–, American dancer, b. New York City. Mitchell studied in New York City and appeared on Broadway and with various companies at home and abroad. He joined the New York City Ballet in 1956, becoming a soloist in 1959. The first black principal dancer of a major company in history, he remained with the company for 20 years. His performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1964) was especially acclaimed. He also performed with distinction in Western Symphony,Agon,Afternoon of a Faun, and Ebony Concerto. In 1968, Mitchell founded a ballet school in Harlem, New York City, in order to provide classical academic training to black students. By 1970 under his direction the school developed into the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first black classical ballet company. His works include Rhythmetron (1968) and Ode to Otis (1969). He stepped down as the company's artistic director in 2009.

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