Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Arthur Mitchell
A self-proclaimed grandfather of diversity, Arthur Mitchell was the first African American principal dancer at New York City Ballet and was the co-founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, the first African American classical ballet company.
Mitchell was born in Harlem, New York on March 17, 1934. He studied at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, where he learned different dance styles such as tap, modern, and jazz. Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of New York City Ballet (NYCB) along with George Balanchine, observed Mitchell during a performance at his high school graduation. Impressed with what he saw, Kirstein provided the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s affiliate school, enough funding to offer Mitchell a scholarship. Mitchell began studying ballet in 1952 at the age of 18. Despite his late start, Kirstein offered him a permanent position with NYCB three years later. During Mitchell’s debut in the lead male role of Balanchine’s Western Symphony, he recalled hearing gasps from the audience and at least one racist comment when he took the stage. Arthur Mitchell’s first distinctive role was in The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore. The ballet was created in 1954 by modern dance choreographer John Butler, and it premiered in Washington, DC with Talley Beatty, an African American dancer and choreographer, in the role of the Unicorn. Mitchell later went on to perform the role of the Unicorn in January in 1957 for the NYCB production.
In 1957, George Balanchine created Agon, which featured a pas de deux with Mitchell and Diana Adams. The performance was considered a revolutionary move on Balanchine’s part due to the intimacy that was portrayed onstage between a black man and a white woman in a time of racial tension. “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 stage?” Mitchell stated in an interview with The New York Times. “Everybody was against him. He knew what he was going against, and he said, ‘You know my dear, this has got to be perfect.’” Balanchine created several other roles for Mitchell, including the role of Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1962, Mitchell was promoted to principal dancer of NYCB.
In addition to teaching ballet at the Harlem School of the Arts, he held dance classes in a garage for the youth of Harlem and charged $0.50 a week for unlimited lessons. It was the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 that inspired Arthur Mitchell to form an all-black ballet company. The next year, Mitchell and Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He spent 16 years with NYCB before leaving to work full-time with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where he remained the artistic director until 2004.
Arthur Mitchell’s honors include the 1971 Capezio Award, the 1975 Dance Magazine Award, a 1993 Kennedy Center Honor, and a Handel Medallion from New York City.
Arthur Mitchell died on September 19, 2018 in Manhattan at the age of 84.