Arthur Mitchell Biography
Raised on Modern Dance, Became Pioneer in Ballet, Formed Unique Dance Company, Struggled through Financial Crises
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 professionals—graduates of the school—who 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 one—least of all Arthur Mitchell—would 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. 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 "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 opportunities—especially dance scholarships—that 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 ghetto—one 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."
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 point—their 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 Russia—the first American artist of any race to receive such a request—but 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 chemical—and 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."
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.
Dance Theatre of Harlem, www.dancetheatreofharlem.com (September 14, 2004).
—Mark Kram and