Sunday Times

Arthur Mitchell: Bal­let pi­o­neer who shocked white au­di­ences 1934-2018

He chose clas­si­cal dance though black roles seemed re­mote

- Arts · Dance · Theatre & Ballet · Ballet

● Arthur Mitchell, who has died aged 84, was a dancer and chore­og­ra­pher who be­came a trail­blazer for black dancers in clas­si­cal bal­let. A poor boy from Har­lem, he starred in the New York City Bal­let and founded the Dance Theater of Har­lem, the world’s first all-black bal­let com­pany.

He shot to world fame when in 1957 Ge­orge Balan­chine, City Bal­let’s found­ing ge­nius, cre­ated Agon, a duet for a black man and a white woman — a sight con­sid­ered so un­ac­cept­able in seg­re­gated Amer­ica that it was not al­lowed on tele­vi­sion un­til 1968.

The first sight of Mitchell with the all­white com­pany so shocked au­di­ences that he re­mem­bered a man shout­ing, “My God, they’ve got a nig­ger in the com­pany!”

But the Rus­sian-born Balan­chine was well aware of what he was show­ing, said Mitchell. “Do you know what it took for Balan­chine to put me, a black man, on stage with a white woman?” he said.

“This was 1957, be­fore civil rights. He showed me how to take her [by the wrist]. He said, ‘Put your hand on top’. The skin colours were part of the chore­og­ra­phy. He saw what was go­ing to hap­pen in the world and put it on stage.”

Sex­ual and so­cial taboo

Balan­chine made the same point again in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s as­sas­si­na­tion, by cre­at­ing a sex­u­ally dis­turb­ing duo, Pitho­prakta, for Mitchell and Suzanne Far­rell in which he was not al­lowed to touch his al­lur­ing white part­ner. Mitchell’s un­suc­cess­ful reaches for Far­rell, wrote the critic Robert Garis, showed that “he was try­ing in the most clear-cut and un­set­tling way to break a sex­ual and so­cial taboo, and fail­ing”.

When New York City Bal­let took Agon on the pro­gramme for their de­but in the Soviet Union, au­di­ences roared “Meet-shell, Meet­shell” in ap­proval.

Mitchell cap­i­talised on his im­pact on so­cial pol­i­tics by launch­ing an all-black dance school in Har­lem in 1968, and within two years the Dance Theatre of Har­lem had made a glit­ter­ing de­but at the Guggen­heim.

Despite fi­nan­cial and artis­tic dif­fi­cul­ties, it cel­e­brates its 50th year this sea­son.

Arthur Adam Mitchell was born in Har­lem, New York City, on March 27 1934, one of five chil­dren of a build­ing su­per­in­ten­dent who left when Arthur was 12.

“I took over run­ning the fam­ily,” Mitchell told the LA Times. “I shined shoes and de­liv­ered meat for a butcher. He paid me in meat.

“I ran er­rands for the girls in a neigh­bour­hood bor­dello. Grow­ing up on Sugar Hill, at­tend­ing Har­lem’s in­cred­i­ble an­nual Easter Pa­rade, I saw ‘class’ all around me.”

Grit recog­nised

He sang in lo­cal church and glee clubs, took tap lessons and was en­cour­aged by a school coun­sel­lor to au­di­tion for Man­hat­tan’s High School of Per­form­ing Arts. There he took parts on Broad­way but was steered by his teacher, Karel Shook, to­wards bal­let.

Of­fered schol­ar­ships to ei­ther a mod­ern dance fac­ulty or the clas­si­cal School of Amer­i­can Bal­let, he chose the lat­ter, despite the dis­cour­ag­ing em­ploy­ment prospects for black bal­let dancers.

His grit was recog­nised by the school’s spon­sor and co-founder, Lin­coln Kirstein, who recorded that when young Mitchell first en­tered the School of Amer­i­can Bal­let, one fa­ther threat­ened to with­draw “his (pinko-gray, ungifted) daugh­ter” if “this (black, gifted) boy” was al­lowed to han­dle her in pas de deux class.

Balan­chine had stated in his orig­i­nal vi­sion in 1933 that NYC Bal­let should have “eight Cau­casian and eight coloured dancers”, and to any protests he would say: “If Mitchell doesn’t dance, City Bal­let doesn’t dance.”

Hard taskmas­ter and mi­cro-man­ager

The 21-year-old Mitchell de­buted in the cow­boy romp Western Sym­phony in 1955 and swiftly emerged in prin­ci­pal roles. Balan­chine cre­ated for him the tricky, high­fly­ing role of Puck in A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, and he be­came one of the com­pany’s stars. He took roles in many Broad­way mu­si­cals and main­tained a busy par­al­lel life as a jazz and mu­si­cals chore­og­ra­pher.

In 1968 Mitchell had the full sup­port of Balan­chine and Kirstein in set­ting up Har­lem’s first bal­let school, and the Dance Theater of Har­lem per­formed along­side New York City Bal­let on sev­eral oc­ca­sions.

For the next four decades Mitchell paid minute at­ten­tion to rais­ing black bal­let dancers, gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a hard taskmas­ter and mi­cro-man­ager, though he be­lieved it was es­sen­tial for black dancers to be bet­ter than whites to get hired.

When asked what he con­sid­ered his crown­ing achieve­ment, he said: “That I bucked so­ci­ety, and an art form that was hun­dreds of years old, and brought black peo­ple into it.”

How­ever, as he ob­served last year, the black prin­ci­pal dancer re­mains rare.

The Daily Tele­graph, Lon­don

The skin colours were part of the chore­og­ra­phy. He saw what was go­ing to hap­pen in the world and put it on stage

 ?? Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages/Jack Mitchell ?? New York City Bal­let dancer Arthur Mitchell in 1963.
Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages/Jack Mitchell New York City Bal­let dancer Arthur Mitchell in 1963.

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