Arthur Mitchell: Ballet pioneer who shocked white audiences 1934-2018
He chose classical dance though black roles seemed remote
● 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.”
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