Arthur Mitchell - Muses & the Beau Monde
Arthur Mitchell born 27 March 1934, was an American ballet dancer, choreographer, and founder and director of ballet companies.
Mitchell was one of four siblings, the son of a building superintendent, and grew up in the streets of Harlem, New York. Forced at the age of 12 to assume financial responsibility for his family in the wake of his father's incarceration, Mitchell worked numerous jobs, including shoe-shining, mopping floors, newspaper delivery, and work in a meat shop. Despite his duties, Mitchell became involved with street gangs, though this did not ultimately deter him from finding success.
As a teenager, Mitchell was encouraged by a guidance counselor to apply for admission to the High School of Performing Arts. Upon being accepted he decided to work towards having a career in classical ballet. Following his graduation in the early 1950s, he won a dance award and scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet, the school affiliated with the New York City Ballet. In 1954, following his 1952 Broadway debut in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, Mitchell would return to Broadway to perform in the Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers, alongside Diahann Carroll, Geoffrey Holder, Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, and Pearl Bailey.
In 1955 Mitchell made his debut as the first African American with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), performing in Western Symphony. Rising to the position of principal dancer with the company in 1956, he performed in all the major ballets in its repertoire, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Nutcracker, Bugaku, Agon, and Arcade.
Choreographer and director of the NYCB George Balanchine created the pas de deux in Agon especially for Mitchell and the white Southern ballerina Diana Adams. Audience members initially complained about partnering Mitchell with a white woman, but Balanchine refused to change the pairing.
Although Mitchell danced this role with white partners throughout the world, he could not perform it on commercial television in the United States until 1968, when the performance aired on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.
Below is an interview from a BBC documentary - Darcey's Ballet Heroes. Former Royal Ballet prima ballerina Darcey Bussell celebrates male ballet dancing with the help of some its greatest exponents. In this clip she interviews Arthur Mitchell, whose performance of the pas de deux in Agon inspired her own performance of the piece. Other interviews from the documentary are on YouTube including Anthony Dowell, Peter Schaufuss, Irek Mukhamedov and Carlos Acosta.
Mitchell left the New York City Ballet in 1966 to appear in several Broadway shows, and helped found ballet companies in Spoleto, Washington, D.C., and Brazil, where he directed a dance company. The company he founded in Brazil was the National Ballet Company of Brazil.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Mitchell returned to Harlem, where he was determined to provide opportunities in dance for the children in that community. A year later, he and his teacher, Karel Shook, inaugurated a classical ballet school. Mitchell had $25,000 of his own money to start the school. About a year later he received $315,000 in a matching funds grant from the Ford Foundation.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) was born in 1969 with 30 children in a church basement in a community where resources of talent and creative energy were virtually untapped. Two months later, Mitchell had attracted 400 youngsters to attend classes. Two years later they presented their first productions as a professional company. Mitchell used his personal savings to convert a garage into the company's home.
There are more clips from interview by the Visionary Project including Arthur Mitchell: Performance with Balanchine's Company where Arthur talks of his back stage jitters before his first ever performance with the NYCB.
In Harlem, DTH created an explosion of professional opportunity in dance, music, and other related theatre activities. The school has an outstanding number of former students who have been successfully engaged in careers as dancers and musicians, as technicians in production, stagecraft, and wardrobe, and in instruction and arts administration. With this success, DTH challenged the classical dance world to review its stereotypes and revise its boundaries.
Arthur died September 19, 2018 aged 84 in Manhattan, from complications of the heart. Below you can watch the Arthur Mitchell Tribute that premiered at Dance Theatre of Harlem's 2019 New York Season at New York City Center. This film celebrates the life of the legendary dancer, trailblazer and DTH Co-Founder Arthur Mitchell and 50 years of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
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