Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer celebrates the extraordinary career and legacy of the New York City Ballet’s first African-American star and the founder and longtime director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Born in Harlem, Mitchell studied at the High School of Performing Arts, danced on Broadway and with several modern dance groups. He discovered ballet at the Katherine Dunham School, worked tirelessly with Karel Shook, a brilliant teacher who became his mentor and later co-director of DTH, and in 1955 was invited by NYCB’s artistic director George Balanchine to join the internationally acclaimed company. Poet Marianne Moore called him a “slim dragon-fly too rapid for the eye to cage,” and this mobility, coupled with his winning stage personality, made him an audience favorite. Balanchine created several great roles for him, including the pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962).
Although Mitchell attended integrated schools, he encountered racism throughout the dance world of the 1950s and 1960s. On Broadway he danced in all-black musicals, in ballet with all-white companies. On network television he could not partner a white ballerina, even if he did so routinely on stage. Only modern dance in the early 1950s was integrated, and Mitchell forged a happy partnership with Mary Hinkson, a black Martha Graham dancer who performed with him on television and abroad.
In 1968, galvanized by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he began teaching at Harlem School of the Arts and, with Karel Shook, formed what became the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Like The Studio Museum and Negro Ensemble Company, DTH was forged in the crucible of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. “Whenever I danced,” Mitchell once said, “I danced for my mom and my people.” DTH was a company of dancers on a mission, intent on proving that African Americans could dance classical ballet. Harlem was their home, but they also belonged to New York City and to the world. Above all, they were a community that believed that making art was also an act of justice. Performing Giselle set in antebellum Louisiana, Firebird in a mythical African rainforest, or Dougla among the mixed African and Indian population of Trinidad, DTH danced its own vision of the African diaspora.
Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer pays tribute to a lifetime of creative achievement, while also celebrating the artists – white as well as black – who helped bring to life Mitchell’s vision of a more just world through dance.
This website, created in tandem with the exhibition Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer, on display at the Wallach Art Gallery from January 12 to March 11, 2018, highlights material from the Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University. It also includes commissioned essays, timelines, links to publicly available sources, and other resources in addition to material from the physical exhibition. Please share this website with friends, students, and colleagues, using it to explore the rich histories behind Arthur Mitchell’s career and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, and encourage new scholarship about African Americans and ballet.
Image credit: Michael D. Harris, Aspirations + Inspiration (detail), 1985, limited edition print 7/30, Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.