Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer

Dance Theatre of Harlem, Company on a Mission > "Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem: The Early Years," Zita Allen

ARTHUR MITCHELL’S DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM:

 THE EARLY YEARS

 Zita Allen

 

Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), the dance school and Black ballet company founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell with Karel Shook was a product both of Mitchell’s visionary genius and belief in the transformative power of art.  However, it was equally a product of the cultural, social, and political forces of the era that gave birth to it.  While the history of DTH has much in common with other newly created cultural institutions, its founders, dancers, repertory, and audiences are, in many ways, distinctive. This look at the early years of DTH, from 1969 to 1985, examines key aspects of this cultural change-agent that helped it do what others could not.

The first thing one notices about Arthur Mitchell is his handsome, charismatic presence.  He has an engaging vitality, elegant bearing, rich dark chocolate skin, chiseled cheekbones, sculptured lips, and the piercing gaze of an observant, intelligent, and doggedly determined soul. “I’m a doer…I’m like a bulldozer. Nothing can stop me,” he admitted in 1968 to Ric Estrada, the Dance Magazine writer who had ventured to Harlem to learn about the dance school and ballet company that the first Black danseur with a major American ballet company was in the process of creating.[1]

Mitchell struck the writer as a “practical idealist, a hard-headed, never-take-no-for-an-answer visionary” who would not “give in an inch on the dream—the obsession—that drives him day and night—a national Negro ballet company and school.”[2]  In truth, few are blessed with the drive required to transform dreams into reality and by doing so cause a paradigm shift in the way others view the world, but Mitchell is made of sterner stuff than most.  “You don’t relax once you’re reached the first goals,” he told dance critic Tobi Tobias.  “You must be continually striving, or you become mediocre.”[3]  Thanks to that relentlessness, scores of talented young Black ballet dancers’ hopes for a career in what, at the time, was the predominantly white world of classical ballet, were rekindled when Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem.  With DTH, Mitchell triggered a change that would transform the world of dance in America and beyond, altering our perception of what a ballet dancer looks like while also broadening the art’s audience appeal.  New York City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein was even known to call him “a Black Balanchine.”[4]

On May 6, 1971, three years after the 1968 Dance Magazine interview, the New York City Ballet’s Eighth Annual Spring Gala at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center said more about Mitchell’s groundbreaking enterprise than a review or feature article ever could.  The highlight of the performance was Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra, choreographed by NYCB’s founder and artistic director George Balanchine and Mitchell.  It would feature forty-eight dancers, an approximately equal number from both companies, sharing the stage.[5]  This was an unusual collaboration for many reasons.  “It’s rare for Balanchine to collaborate with anyone on a dance work, because Mr. B., as he is known around Lincoln Center, produces such an endless stream of choreographic ideas that he usually finds it simpler to do everything himself,” declared Arlene Croce in The New Yorker.[6]   Nevertheless, Balanchine later wrote, “It was a wonderful thing for me to collaborate on the choreography with Arthur Mitchell, who had become, in the New York City Ballet, the first black dancer in any major ballet company.”[7]  But, as Colette Dowling noted in a program essay, the collaboration was a sure fire signal that the young Black ballet company had indeed arrived.[8]  For Balanchine, “The Dance Theatre of Harlem, and its associated school...[were] one of the great breakthroughs in the arts in America,” adding that “to work with [Mitchell’s] dancers on our own ballet was, therefore, a special pleasure.”[9]

New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff speculated that the Balanchine-Mitchell collaboration would cause some to wonder, “How could two companies so seemingly apart in years of performing experience, appear in the same ballet?”[10]  But in a pre-performance interview with the two, she and a Times photographer offered a glimpse of the relationship that made this collaboration possible. A photograph taken during rehearsal that captured the good-natured bond between the two men showed them face-to-face, gesturing and talking, seemingly simultaneously while a cluster of dancers rehearsed in the background.  An admiring Mitchell called it “a great honor to work in this new capacity” with his mentor.  Mr. B. demurred, “Not an honor,” while declaring the venture “a good idea.”  Mitchell explained that they wanted “to do something special for the gala, a new fun number.”[11]   DTH dancer Sheila Rohan recalls that despite the fact that the NYCB folks were “very welcoming,” she and her fellow-company members were very nervous: “The fact we were going to be working with George Balanchine had us all shivering.”[12]

The ballet, which offered the young company an opportunity to show off both its technical facility and distinctive profile, was basically “in the classic idiom” with “stylizations of the jitterbug and other jazz-dance steps.”[13]  Balanchine selected the music, “an atonal composition with boogie-woogie” by the Swiss composer and Hamburg Orchestra conductor Rolf Lieberman.  As with many Balanchine dances, Kisselgoff noted, the choreography was designed to “follow the structure of the score,” which was performed by the NYCB orchestra and “Doc” Severinsen’s Tonight Show jazz band.[14]  The two companies shared the stage in the opening “Introduction and Jump” and the closing “Interludiium.” The four sections sandwiched in-between alternately featured NYCB (Scherzos I and II) and DTH (the “Blues” and “Boogie Woogie”).  Rohan recalls that the NYCB dancers wore tutus and pointe shoes, and the DTH dancers “short skirts and jazz shoes with big bows and little heels.”[15]

Mitchell told Kisselgoff that he and Balanchine “wanted a truly integrated feeling. Not a Black company here and a white company there. They just happen to be Black and white. That’s the way it should be in the arts. And, in life period.”[16]  Kisselgoff’s colleague, Clive Barnes, found the music “pretty poor” and the ballet “no masterpiece.”  But he applauded the collaboration, “It was great to see black dancers at the State Theater.”[17]  For Barnes, Balanchine, and many others, the joint performance by these two companies – one white and one Black – was its own reward. In fact, Balanchine later wrote, “It made me, personally, as it did Lincoln Kirstein, prouder than ever to be an occupant of the New York State Theatre.”[18]

DTH was not the first ballet company created as a platform for ballet-trained Black dancers in an art from which they had been systematically excluded. As Arthur Mitchell told Dance Magazine, “There were always black classical dancers in America—they just never got on stage!”[19]  Black ballet dancers had managed, on a few occasions, to hurtle ballet’s seemingly insurmountable barriers and perform either as members of a handful of short-lived Black ballet companies or as guest artists with white ones. However, the NYCB gala seems to have been the first time a full-fledged Black ballet company seems to have shared the stage with a white counterpart.  Even more noteworthy is the fact that, at the time, DTH was only two years old.

Dance Theatre of Harlem: In The Beginning

By 1971 the birth of Dance Theatre of Harlem was already the stuff of legend. First was the impressive “bio” of the man who had conceived the idea, which included Lincoln Kirstein’s historic invitation to a young Harlem-born, modern-dance-trained graduate of the High School of Performing Arts to study, on scholarship, at the School of American Ballet. Then, in 1955, the invitation to join New York City Ballet, followed in 1958 by a promotion to soloist, and in 1962 to principal, this country’s first African American to attain that rank with a major ballet company.

In 1967 the thirty-three-year-old internationally acclaimed dancer was commuting between New York and NYCB and Rio de Janeiro, where, under an agreement with the U.S. State Department and Brazil’s Ministry of Education and Culture, he was hired to help organize the Companhia Nacional de Ballet, the country’s first federally-funded ballet company.  He returned to Rio the following winter to head another company, Companhia Brasileira de Ballet, this one privately owned, for which he choreographed Rhythmetron and Biosfera, two works with a long DTH afterlife.  The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 triggered the epiphany that prompted Mitchell to change course and begin the process that would spark a cultural sea change with the creation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, although he did not immediately give up his connection with the Brazilian ensemble, even hoping for a time that collaboration with his new American group might be possible.[20]

Mitchell recalled his reaction to the King assassination at a New York City Ballet Guild seminar in 1994:

“I was very upset and got very emotional, and I said, “Why should I be going to Brazil when there are so many problems here at home?”.... Dorothy Maynor had the Harlem School of the Arts, and she had been asking me to teach for her. So I went up there, it was on 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, a bare-bones garage with a hot tin roof. I took my own personal money, which I had been saving diligently—$25,000—and put in a dance floor and barres, but we couldn’t even afford mirrors. I charged fiftycents a week, and I just told kids to come in because I felt it was very important to take young people off the streets and get them involved in the arts and particularly the dance.”[21]

Jacqueline Moore Latham, who wrote a dissertation about Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey in the early 1970s, suggests that Mitchell’s idea of ballet as a transformative tool originated around 1956, long pre-dating the King assassination. She quotes Mitchell as saying that when grappling with pivotal career decisions that year, he asked himself, “Are you, Arthur Mitchell, going to be happy and satisfy your own personal desires – or are you going to suppress ‘self’ and work for a bigger cause?”  He finally resolved that, no matter what the personal cost might be, a Black person in America had to remain in ballet, concluding that even if there were only one, aspiring young Black dancers might have someone about whom to say, “Well, if he made it, so can I.”[22]

Beginning on August 1, 1968, at Dorothy Maynor’s Harlem School of the Arts, Mitchell and Karel Shook, his teacher and mentor who returned from the Dutch National Ballet to help set up Dance Theatre of Harlem, taught eager kids “atop an unfinished Balanchine-designed platform, surrounded by dangling wires, concrete blocks, and bare brick walls rising up to jagged skylights.”[23]  Mitchell was nothing if not ambitious.  As he told Ric Estrada, he dreamed of creating “a cultural center, along the lines of Lincoln Center, but Negro,” where kids could “study dancing, acting, singing, music, any instrument he wants – piano, violin, anything.... We’ll have a working theatre, where we’ll train not only dancers, singers, and musicians, but stage crew as well, with kids who want to learn about lighting, set designing, etc.  They’ll have the opportunity to actually work in the theatre.”[24]

At the Harlem School of the Arts Mitchell started with thirty neighborhood children and two trained dancers—Llanchie Stevenson and Walter Raines.[25]  Raines had attended the School of American Ballet, while Stevenson later joined the National Ballet of Washington before auditioning for DTH.  One of the talented “neighborhood kids” was a young girl named Lydia Abarca who would later become a star of DTH. “Everyone said I was absolutely insane,” Mitchell later reminisced, “it would not work—that it was using a European art form, they were black children, they would not be able to relate, it was Eurocentric, classical music—all reasons why it can’t be done.”[26]

Within two months, word had spread like wildfire, and the initial enrollment mushroomed to 400 students.[27]  Mitchell attributed the phenomenal growth, in part, to the fact that “It was awfully hot in the garage so we would leave the doors open.  People walking by would hear the commotion and I would invite them in to sit on the floor and watch.”[28]  Just as a school was Balanchine’s “first enterprise in partnership with Lincoln Kirstein and the foundation for all others,” so, too, dance education (and the DTH school) was Mitchell’s “first enterprise.”  As Mitchell envisioned it (and critic Arlene Croce later put it with respect to NYCB), the DTH school would feed the company new dancers, and the company, in turn, “through its choreographers, [would] feed the school new ideas of dance style,” thereby creating a self-sustaining reciprocity.[29]

In the beginning, dance classes were one size fits all.  “Then we began to get kids that were more proficient than others so they were separated. Based on facility, students were grouped 40 or 50 to a class,” Mitchell told Dance and Dancers in 1974, when DTH gave its first London performances.  “We started putting them into age groups. At first, students ranged in age from 8 to 14-years-old.” Initially, ballet classes didn’t attract many boys. Mitchell remedied that by using drum accompaniment instead of the traditional piano saying, “The drums made them think it wasn’t classical work.”[30] Mitchell explained that in an effort to attract students he had to battle all kinds of racial and gender biases about ballet. “We had to show Harlem boys that to be a danseur is the equivalent of being a great athlete.”[31]  In lecture-demonstrations, Mitchell made frequent references to sports and popular sports figures to, which helped spark the interest of potential male students and their parents.

Lecture-demonstrations helped with that and much else.  For one thing, their mini-performance format and frequency helped to keep students focused by giving them  a sense of what it felt like to perform before an audience, encouraging them to develop the discipline and dedication required to master ballet technique and artistry. “We started performing right away with the nucleus of the kids even though they were not really trained.  All the choreography had to be devised specially for them and this developed us and also gave them the sense of performing on stage. In this way the classroom became a means to an end to perform, not an end in itself.”[32]

Buoyed by his success, Mitchell sought a grant from the Ford Foundation. “They said they couldn’t give it to me because I was not a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, so I then asked if they would give it to the Harlem School of the Arts specifically for the dance program I was doing and they agreed. So that was my first grant.”[33] Soon, Mitchell decided to strike out on his own. He approached Balanchine. “I said, ‘You know, Mr. B, I really love this. It’s wonderful. It’s like watching a flower bloom.’  (I started using his own analogies on him.)  ‘You see it all change before you. I like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, Arthur, you know you’re dancing very well....’  I said, ‘No, Mr. B, I really think I have to do this.’ And he said, ‘Okay, I’ll help you.’”[34]

In February 1969 Dance Theatre of Harlem was officially incorporated, marking the beginning of a long journey as Mitchell juggled both the artistic and administrative demands of his new venture.  “I had to start learning what it was to be an administrator, form a 501(c )(3) not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization, develop a board of directors, and make proposals.”[35]  Looking back on DTH’s remarkable early success, Mitchell would later say, “I think DTH has achieved so much in such a short period of time, and has developed so fast, because I was able to use the principles and the standards of New York City Ballet.  Betty Cage (NYCB’s company manager) helped me. Lincoln helped me. Mr. Balanchine helped me. I didn’t’ have to do trial-and-error.  Mr. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were on our original board of directors. I still use the basics taught to me by Mr. B. and Lincoln.”[36]

Another important key to DTH’s success was Karel Shook.  A former member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and, for a brief time, the New York City Ballet, he spent a good part of the 1950s teaching ballet at the Katherine Dunham and June Taylor schools, and his own midtown Manhattan Studio of Dance Arts.  Dance historian Joe Nash called Shook’s school “a mecca for Black dancers,...a Who’s Who of students who later became famous.”[37] Shook’s students, during the 1950s, included Alvin Ailey, Donald McKayle, Mary Hinkson, Pearl Reynolds, Walter Nicks, Claude Thompson, Matt Turney, Carmen de Lavallade, William Louther, Dudley Williams, Billy Wilson, Louis Johnson, and Mitchell himself, whom Shook recruited to teach ballet at his studio.  In 1959 Shook left New York to become ballet master and choreographer for the Dutch National Ballet.  Two weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, Mitchell telephoned with a proposal that lured him back to New York. “Arthur called me and asked if I would come back to the States and join in the formation of a Black classical ballet company and an attendant school—in Harlem. I accepted without hesitation.”[38]

The Times

In the 1960s, the America in which Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook would undertake this historic venture was a nation in turmoil and at a crossroads. It was a nation where nightly news broadcasts carried stories of assassinations, bombings, and riots with major cities engulfed in flames, and massive demonstrations and marches, like the 1963 March on Washington, that brought 250,000 to the nation’s capital in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Racism, sexism, political, social, economic, and gender inequality, all sparked nationally organized movements demanding lasting solutions to domestic issues while also working to end the country’s involvement in a deeply controversial war in Vietnam or apartheid in South Africa.  The nation’s constantly evolving conversation about race saw labels like “Negro” morph into “Afro-American,” then “African American,” then “Black,” as Time, Newsweek, and other national news magazines devoted entire issues to cover stories with titles like “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done.”[39]

While local, state, and national elected officials and other leaders seeking solutions to the pressing problemsfocused primarily on the political arena, there were those who believed that art, too, could be a catalyst for change. The link between art and activism was at the heart of the era’s cultural renaissance known as the Black Arts Movement.  Playwrights, poets, actors, dancers, choreographers, and others banded together to create organizations like the Negro Ensemble Company, the New Federal Theatre, Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, the Black Theatre Alliance, the Association of Black Choreographers, and the Society of Black Composers.  They founded publications like the Black Theatre Alliance Newsletter, the Negro Digest/Black World, Dance Herald, The Feet, and others. And, whether they presented powerful polemics against social injustice or positive Black images in purely entertaining productions, what united them most often was a belief in art as an agent of social change. As Hoyt Fuller, editor of the Black World, wrote, “The rebellion in the streets is the black ghetto’s response to the vast distance between the nation’s principles and its practices…. Across this country, young men and women have been infected with the fever of affirmation.  They are saying, “We are black and beautiful,”…. They are rediscovering their heritage and their history, seeing it with newly focused eyes.”[40]  It was in this fertile environment that Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook sowed the seed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Dance Theatre of Harlem:  First, a School

Years ago, as an aspiring dancer and young journalist, I visited the first official home of Dance Theatre of Harlem in the basement of Church of the Master at 122nd Street and Morningside Avenue to observe class and interview Mitchell, Shook, and several dancers.  In a large brick-walled space, Shook took his young students through a typical ballet barre.  They seemed unfazed by the maze of exposed pipes overhead, the fluorescent lighting, or the absence of the wall-to-wall mirrors usually found in dance studios. Dressed in ballet practice clothes, the dancers moved with measured precision and studied grace.  In one hand, Shook held the long baton-like stick, a familiar tool of ballet teachers at the time to mark tempo or signify where a dancer needed to make an adjustment to improve alignment during an exercise. Surveying the room, he gave directions or made corrections in a calm, no-nonsense manner. Occasionally, he adjusted a dancer’s limbs or torso helping to etch the correct placement into their muscle memory. His hands-on attention was understood to be not a reprimand but an indication of his belief in the student’s potential.  Dancers welcomed the attention. After all, both teacher and student were on a mission to change, once and for all, the biased presumption that Black dancers’ bodies were just not right for ballet. With Shook, Mitchell has said, “there never has been the feeling that he was a white person working with Blacks; he was a person who believed that you could do something. This has been very important to all Black dancers in America.”[41]

Shook, in turn, believed that his experience with DTH was “the culmination of my own thirty years of work, in dozens of little studios, with black children.”[42]  The man Mitchell declared “extremely important” to his DTH project,” would develop what some described as “a reputation as a miracle worker, because of what he’s done in Harlem.”[43] While some of the early DTH dancers had studio doors slammed in their faces, Shook said that now, for the first time, he was working with students who could see the stage as a realistic goal: “Arthur has already realized a great dream, for many of us.... For the first time, the black American ballet dancer can see ballet as a performing art.”[44]  A brief visit to his class showed what could happen when the hint of the possibility of a new reality motivated both teacher and students.  At the Church of the Master, Shook was doing what he had done for years—spending “enormously long hours of grueling work and difficulties—exercising talent, intelligence, patience, persistence, insight, authority, endurance and devotion.”[45]

The Church of the Master was not DTH’s first home after the relationship between Mitchell and Harlem School of the Arts’ Dorothy Maynor broke down.  Shook said that Maynor proved unsympathetic with what he and Mitchell were “trying to do or with the discipline and professionalism of our approach.  She also had ideas about the use of money that had been given to us by the Ford Foundation that diverged from those of DTH.” In mid-summer 1969, she announced that “she was severing all connections with us at the end of the summer course.”  They had to relocate immediately, “something that is extremely difficult in New York City.”[46]  To the rescue came Glen Tetley, a choreographer who had danced with both Mitchell and Mary Hinkson in John Butler’s American Dance Theatre.  His studio on West 19th Street was temporarily unoccupied (Tetley was doing more and more work in Europe), and so DTH temporarily left Harlem for Chelsea.  Informed of the move and told that classes were open to all, students followed in droves.

Before long, Mitchell heard of another Harlem church with available space. Wasting no time, after a meeting with the pastor, DTH moved into the basement of Church of the Master at 122st Street and Morningside Avenue in September 1969.  It was hardly in pristine condition.  “A lot had to be done,” Mitchell told Dance Magazine, “because it was literally a basement with leaking pipes and everything, and the floor was buckled.  But we all got to work and in what must have been record time put everything right.”[47]

Virginia Johnson, the company’s current artistic director, remembers those first days at Church of the Master. “The door would be open, and there would be kids walking down the block on St. Nicholas Avenue and, they’d look in and see these people doing this strange stuff and then the next thing we knew they’d be sitting on the floor watching us, and then we’d see some of them up there trying to do it.”[48]  The Open Houses that became a DTH trademark started at Church of the Master.  Shook recalled, “The gymnasium of the church had an observers gallery along one side so we instituted a policy of open rehearsals each Wednesday afternoon to which school children, senior citizens and club groups were invited. Soon they were joined by men and women of achievement in all fields of art. Luchino Visconti came as did Cicely Tyson, Gian Carlo Menotti, Lord Snowdon, Ted Shawn, and Riri Grist.”[49]  These regularly scheduled Wednesday afternoon events, which Mitchell sometimes referred to as “more open classes than performances,”[50] served as a training ground for the fledging company.  Coupled with the lecture-demonstrations given in schools and colleges, they served as community outreach and audience development tools, raising DTH’s profile, encouraging community support, and creating a fan base that would spread the word and later flock to theaters downtown to support their Dance Theatre of Harlem.

The school’s enrollment increased rapidly. There were beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes for children and adults six days a week from eleven in the morning to eight at night.[51]  Soon, there were reportedly over 1,000 students taking classes at DTH, and they were being taught by some of the best teachers in the city.  Shook revered great teachers.  As he told Tobi Tobias of Dance Magazine, “they convey the art from past tradition to future innovation, and make it live gloriously, through its practitioners, in the present moment.”[52]  The teaching staff that he and Mitchell assembled early on was an impressive and inspiring group—Mary Hinkson of the Martha Graham Dance Company; Pearl Reynolds, who taught Katherine Dunham technique; James Truitte, formerly of the Lester Horton and Alvin Ailey companies; Kathy Grant, a former member of the Donald McKayle company (where she had danced with Mitchell) and a pioneering Pilates instructor; Thelma Hill, former member of the New York Negro Ballet Company and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  Mitchell also recruited his first New York City Ballet partner, Tanaquil Le Clercq, to teach and also coach the company’s Balanchine repertory, and MarieBrooks, founder of the Pan Caribbean Dance Company. Then there were the friends who dropped in to help out, like the New York City Ballet colleagues or award-winning actress Cecily Tyson, who would serve as coaches for DTH dancers.  Mitchell’s sunny, upbeat disposition attracted both allies and generous supporters.

Tuition was kept low so that classes were affordable. “In the truest sense, all students at the School are on scholarship” declared DTH literature.  Children aged 7-12 paid $1.00 a week; those 13-18, $2.00 a week; and college students, $20.00 a month. Adults paid $22.50 for a series of ten classes. There was a nominal registration fee. Students could take as many classes a week as could be worked into their schedule.  Partial and full scholarships were generously distributed. Full scholarships went to “particularly gifted students or those who show promise and dedication but have no funds to pay for lessons.”  Mitchell and Shook auditioned applicants who were “accepted on the basis of talent, desire, and/or need.”[53]  Over its first four years, more than 300 youngsters, children of all ages and stages of development, were awarded full scholarships. DTH also paid tuition to the Professional Children’s School and Lincoln Square Academy for gifted elementary or high school-age students or company apprentices.

Mitchell declared on more than one occasion that education was one of DTH’s primary missions. According to Alicia Graf, who joined DTH in the late 1990s, even company members who were still in school had to keep their grades up or suffer the consequences.[54]  In DTH newsletters notice after notice applauded students for their scholastic and artistic achievements.  Every child studying at the school was not destined to become a ballet dancer, but Mitchell wanted DTH to help “make better human beings, a better dance audience, and hopefully some dancers.”[55]  He also was known to boast that often kids who studied ballet often saw their grades improve and attributed that to the discipline they learned while studying dance.

DTH quickly outgrew Church of the Master.  Luckily, thanks to help from friends and supporters, Mitchell found a solution that allowed him to build the organization and place it on a more secure footing.  One Wednesday afternoon in 1971 the wealthy department store heiress and philanthropist Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel accompanied a friend to a DTH Open House.  Afterward, she spoke to Mitchell who recalled the conversation.  “She said, ‘These kids are fantastic and you shouldn’t be stuck in this basement. Look, if you need space I would like to help you and if you want some help just let me know.’ Well, you know that was the last thing to tell me.”[56]  Soon afterward he learned of a building on 152nd Street between St. Nicholas and Amsterdam Avenues, not far from his mother’s home.  He contacted Mrs. Gimbel, immediately, and together they went to check it out.

“It was $110,000 dollars, so Mrs. Gimbel said she would donate the money from her and her husband’s Foundation, the Alva and Bernard F. Gimbel Foundation, to secure the two-story garage with basement building. So we started the renovation, then we went to the Rockefeller brothers and got a grant of $75,000 dollars there, and the dancers did $70,000 in extra performances, and didn’t accept any fees, so as to help renovate the building.  By the end of the renovation and the fund-raising the building cost $325,000 dollars.....Right from the beginning I felt it was better to own everything oneself rather than renting, so we started acquiring our lighting equipment, sound systems and everything like that.”[57] 

Given the impact of rising rents and vanishing studio space on the dance field generally, Mitchell’s decision was inspired.  Dance Theatre of Harlem continues to occupy the home it acquired in 1971.

The spacious facility allowed Mitchell to create an enhanced training program that equipped students with a variety of allied skills.  Costume designer Zelda Wynn taught a fashion and wardrobe design workshop.  The Cuban-born composer and conductor Tania León became head of the music department. Wynn’s students became apprentices paid to help make the dancers’ costumes.  León’s students helped teach music as their skills advanced. Despite the expansion, DTH never lost sight of its primary raison d’être—to train Black ballet dancers and develop the first permanent Black classical ballet company in America.  To that end, Mitchell said, “with the new building we were able to expand, break the classes down and sort out those who were gifted and those who weren’t.”[58]  Echoing the wisdom Balanchine and Kirstein shared when founding New York City Ballet,Mitchell said,“Without the School to provide it with dancers the Company could not exist. But without the Company, the School would be meaningless. The dancers must have an example put before them and must also be trained for a real purpose.”[59]

Creating the DTH Ballet Dancer

Before DTH ballet training was often not readily available to Black dancers.  When it was, teachers usually discouraged aspiring Black dancers from pursuing ballet.  To be sure, a handful of Black dance teachers opened studios and trained talented Black dancers.  Among these convention-defying Black pioneers were Philadelphia-based Essie Marie Dorsey (a student of Michel Fokine and Mikhail Mordkin), Marion Cuyjet, and Sydney King.  Doris Jones and Claire Haywood taught in Washington, D.C., Elma Lewis in Boston, and Ella Gordon in New York City.  Now and then, a company would spring up that offered opportunities for aspiring dancers, only to close because they lacked adequate funding.  Occasionally, too, an actual ballet company would materialize like the four that preceded DTH—the Negro Dance Theatre, founded by Aubrey Hitchins; Edward Flemyng’s Ballet Americana (also known as the New York Negro Ballet); Joseph Rickard’s First Negro Classic Ballet; and Eugene Von Grona’s American Negro Ballet.  Despite its name, the latter was actually modern dance oriented, as Von Grona had trained with Mary Wigman.  Nevertheless, after the company folded, a number of the dancers appeared in Agnes de Mille’s Obeah: A Black Ritual, presented by (American) Ballet Theatre in 1940.[60]

Similarly, a handful of white ballet teachers, dating back to the 1930s, bucked convention and taught Black students, either in regular classes at their own studios, or in private classes, or as guest teaches at Black ballet schools, such as Antony Tudor, William Dollar, and Carmelita Maracci.  In the 1940s, the future Dunham dancer, teacher and administrator, Syvilla Fort studied with one of the famed Christensen brothers before attending the Cornish School of Allied Arts, and John Cage wrote his first piece for prepared piano, “Bacchanale,” for her.[61]   Maria Swoboda taught Raven Wilkinson before she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1956.  In the 1950s members of the New York Negro Ballet studied with the former Bolshoi dancer Maria Navelska.  The School of American Ballet opened its doors to a few Black students in the 1940s, when Betty Nichols studied there.  In 1950s Louis Johnson, Delores Brown, Sylvester Campbell, and John Jones, in addition to Mitchell studied at SAB, but only Mitchell was invited to join the New York City Ballet on a permanent basis.  Numerous Black dancers left the United States, joining ballet companies in Europe, where the hospitable racial climate enabled dancers like Sylvester Campbell to dance the leads in such iconic ballets as Swan Lake and Giselle.

Meanwhile, at home, the number of Black dancers in American companies grew painfully slowly.  On this very short list, apart from Raven Wilkinson and Mitchell, were Janet Collins, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in the 1950s; John Jones, who danced for the Joffrey Ballet and the Harkness Ballet in the 1960s in addition to touring with Jerome Robbins’ Ballets: U.S.A.; Christian Holder and Gary Chryst, who began dancing for the Joffrey Ballet in the 1960s; Sara Yarborough, who joined the Harkness Ballet in the 1960s; and Keith Lee, who danced for American Ballet Theatre in that decade.  Very occasionally, Black dancers were engaged by white companies to appear in specific works.  Thus, in 1933 Katherine Dunham appeared in Ruth Page’s ballet La Guiablesse; former members of the Von Grona company and others in Agnes de Mille’s Obeah:  A Black Ritual (1940) for (American) Ballet Theatre; and Talley Beatty in Lew Christensen’s Blackface (1947) for Ballet Society.  This trend of token performances continued in the 1950s and 1960s, with Arthur Bell dancing in Frederick Ashton’s Illuminations (1950), Louis Johnson in Jerome Robbins’ Ballade (1952), Mary Hinkson in Balanchine’s Figure in the Carpet (1960) and John Jones in the choreographer’s Modern Jazz: Variants (1961), all for New York City Ballet.  At American Ballet Theatre, token performances also prevailed, with Mary Hinkson appearing in Glen Tetley’s Ricercare (1966) and Carmen de Lavallade, Judith Jamison, Cleo Quitman, and Glory Van Scott in Agnes de Mille’s Four Marys (1965).

In their bid to create opportunities and challenge the dominant narrative that Black bodies were not made for ballet, Mitchell and Shook focused primarily on training, preparation, and performance. “We start with classical training, because it gives a strong technical basis,” Mitchell told an interviewer in 1971, “but then I’d like to include everything in the repertory—modern dance, jazz and primitive.”[62]  The resulting multi-talented dancer would have the stylistic flexibility needed to handle an eclectic repertory. “This is total use of the entire body, contrary to what most people believe, which is that ballet is—just legs—or modern dance is just the top.”   After all, Mitchell added, “A dancer is a dancer, and you should study every kind of dancing.... But the one that gives you the strongest technical base, is classical ballet.”  Yes, he liked the “Balanchine style” with its emphasis on long legs, but he also liked dancers with “individual personality.”  Additionally he believed that dancers needed “the freedom of the torso… so that if one wanted a contraction or body ripple added on point you could make a totally different effect.”[63]  This concept shaped the training at DTH and would be reflected in numerous company works from Mitchell’s Rhythmetron (1970) and Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla (1974) to Robert Garland’s Return (1999).  “DTH is the site for the liberation of the classically trained black dancing body,” says Keith Saunders, a former DTH dancer who is now the company’s ballet master, “a place where it was relentlessly encouraged and could thrive and prosper, a place where it was the rule, not the exception.”[64]

On July 10, 1968 Mitchell took a major step toward creating that DTH dancer when he placed an ad in the New York Times. That ad read, “Arthur Mitchell, of the New York City Ballet, will hold auditions for Negro dancers next Monday at the Harlem School of the Arts, St. Nicholas Avenue and 141st Street, for a company being formed at the school. Both modern and classically trained dancers are invited, girls at noon and boys at 2 P.M.”[65]  Contrary to some early articles about DTH that labeled the dancers “black slum youngsters,” “disadvantaged youngsters,” or “high school dropouts,” a diverse group of dancers walked through the doors of the Harlem School of the Arts and the company’s various homes in those early years.  Aged ten to twenty-plus, with skin tones ranging from ebony to alabaster, they represented the rainbow of diversity that is the African Diaspora.  They came from around the United States and from a variety of technical backgrounds and had learned about DTH from newspapers, television, relatives, teachers, or friends.  A small handful who had professional experience under their belt like John Jones (Joffrey, Harkness, and Ballets: U.S.A.), Walter Raines (Stuttgart), James Thurston (Royal Winnipeg Ballet), and Derek Williams (Jamaican National Dance Theatre) would perform with DTH and in some cases even teach classes while also serving as models for the younger aspiring ballet dancers. Whoever they were and wherever they came from, they believed that DTH offered a nurturing environment and an opportunity to realize their wildest dreams, and something else that they would come to identify over time as a chance to make a difference.  Their stories reflect their diversity and shared mission.

Virginia Johnson, the daughter of a naval architect father and a mother who taught physical education at Howard University, decided to “pursue this dream in the basement of a church in Harlem” after studying ballet with Therrell Smith and then with Mary Day at the Washington School of Ballet and being admitted on scholarship to the Dance Department at New York University“When I joined the company most of the dancers had been told, like me, that there was no future for them in ballet,” Johnson recalls. “At DTH we knew that was not true.”[66]

Gail McKinney, of Waterford, Connecticut, was a student at the prestigious Juilliard School but left when she felt pressured to major in modern dance rather than ballet.  (During the 1960s Juilliard’s ballet program came under growing attack and was ultimately eliminated.)  Then she says a girlfriend told her, “‘Arthur Mitchell is starting a Black company.  Why don’t you go there?’  It was right around where I lived so I went and from then on it was like magic.  I said, ‘I like this place.  I want to be here.’”[67]

Eventually, she became DTH’s first ballet mistress. Lydia Abarca grew up on 125th Street in the Grant Houses.  She was the oldest of seven children of a Puerto Rican-born father who was a janitor at Brooklyn College and a stay-at-home mom who occasionally worked part-time for the telephone company. Still she managed to get her daughter into ballet classes at Juilliard, June Taylor, and the Harkness School before Abarca, as a teenager, became a founding member of DTH and later, a critical sensation as a principal dancer.[68]

Fourteen-year-old Lorraine Graves started studying ballet in Norfolk, Virginia, where she grew up, before winning scholarships to the School of American Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet school.  One day during a break between classes at Joffrey she went uptown to Harlem to take Shook’s Intermediate Advanced ballet class.  “It was the first time I had been in a class of 20-30 people who looked like me.  Back home, I was the first African American girl admitted to my ballet school.  I was the only one in my classes at SAB and Joffrey.  So that was an adventure.”[69]  Shook wanted her to come back so Mitchell could see her, but she didn’t out of a sense of obligation to the Joffrey school, which had given her a scholarship.  A couple of years later, after graduating from Indiana University, she auditioned and joined DTH.  Her first role was in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.  “Some of the reviewers thought we were all from the ghetto.  It was almost like ‘Oh, these poor little children from the ghetto.  Look what they’re doing.’  That was part of the perception like we were from [families of] lesser means, and Mr. Mitchell saved our lives—that kind of thing.  He did do some of that, but a lot of us came from upper-middle-class backgrounds and were just looking for an opportunity to fulfill our dreams. Later, reviewers began to see us as dancers.  By that time we were starting to venture into a different kind of repertoire, and we were definitely starting to be compared to other companies.”[70]

Homer Hans Bryant was one of four children of a single mother who wasn’t too keen, at first, on him taking tap and jazz in his native St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.  Encouraged by a teacher, he landed a scholarship to study at Jacob’s Pillow where he met Arthur Mitchell, who invited him to study at DTH on a partial scholarship.  Bryant later joined the company.  Born in Amarillo, Texas, the late Paul Russell was introduced to dance via TV and fell in love with it, literally leaping to stardom with what the New York Times called “teasing flamboyancy and exuberant spirit.”[71]  Of his background, he told one reporter, “My family was poor. Ma was a laundress. Daddy, who worked hard all his life till he retired still says, ‘When are you going to get a regular job?’”[72]  Ronald Perry, who became a DTH principal in addition to performing with American Ballet Theatre, Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, and Britain’s Royal Ballet, was introduced to DTH by a family friend seeking to help his hard-working parents—a private chauffeur father and domestic worker mother—find an outlet for their quiet, introverted thirteen-year-old son.  Finally, there was Sheila Rohan, whose sister, Nanette Bearden (wife of painter Romare Bearden), “saw an ad in the papers and told me that there was an audition up in Harlem at the Church of the Master and that I should go.”  She was hesitant at first because she “wasn’t a ballerina. I had studied ballet, but there’s a difference between studying and being a ballerina.”  Still, she auditioned, became an apprentice, and in 1970 joined the company.[73] No matter where they came from or whether their families were poor or middle class, they shared a bond as DTH dancers that molded them into a community that transformed their lives.[74]

Despite the demands placed on them, the dancers relished DTH’s welcoming environment.  It was unlike anything they had experienced elsewhere. Abarca says that at other New York schools, “no one paid enough attention.” At DTH, things changed: “Arthur’s enthusiasm,” she says, “had a lot to do with it. Of course, Shook would make us do 64 tendus, but we knew why we were doing them. Arthur was tough. He was also energetic, and...we were all so eager to learn from him, and once I got the ballet bug, well…”[75]

A typical day in the life of those early DTH dancers began with Kathy Grant’s nine o’clock “Special Exercises” or Pilates class, followed by Shook’s ninety-minute ballet technique class, which in turn was followed by a break, company class and then several hours of rehearsal.  Rohan says, “Arthur always taught company class.”[76]  Thanks to Mitchell and Shook, the classroom forged the dancers into a company of performers.  Robert Garland, who joined DTH in 1985 and later became its resident choreographer, describes the two men as flip sides of the same coin. “Mr. Mitchell focused more on the performance qualities. Mr. Shook focused on the technique. Shook’s classes were grueling, but they made you a good dancer. He focused a lot on alignment and repetition. Mitchell focused on helping dancers develop the power and charisma that made them excellent performers.”  Highlighting what he thought was a result of their approach to teaching, Garland says, “None of those early dancers ever had a serious injury. That’s because of Mr. Shook’s training.  Also, they became excellent performers faster than most dancers. That was due to Mr. Mitchell.”[77]

Critic Tobi Tobias was one of many observers who tried to discover the secret ingredient of Shook’s teaching, which was “thrusting black dancers on to the classical ballet scene with a force that may very well revolutionize the dance scene.”[78]  In an article published in Dance Magazine in 1973, she recorded his advice to students in the company’s large, sun-drenched, third-floor studio:  “Don’t go down and sit in plié. All you do is gather inertia.” “Ballet is willpower.”  “The classroom is a place for perfection and purification.  The lesson is a ritual.  You have to concentrate.  Totally.  If you don’t do that, it’s useless. No, not useless; it’s immoral.”  “When you come into class you should be prepared to put in one hour and a half of total mental, physical and spiritual concentration.[79]

Mitchell’s teaching emphasized other qualities. “I attribute my mature artistic qualities to Mr. Mitchell,” says Alicia Graf, “because he really took the time and cared about every single aspect of me as a seventeen-year-old dancer from expanding my facility in class to exploring how to become an effective performer.... I’m very tall, and when I joined the company I hadn’t yet discovered the potential of my lines and my limbs. Mr. Mitchell’s coaching and Mr. Balanchine’s choreography really taught me not to be afraid of my length and how to explore that a lot more.”[80]

Mitchell helped her extend her line by showing how something as simple as a temps lié was “more than extending your leg in tendu and transferring your weight to it. It was about transferring your weight, not just stepping from here to there, but projecting your energy forward.”  Another enduring lesson had to do with music. “Musicality is really important to Mr. Mitchell. Of course, it is to most directors, but he helped us understand our musicality. When Mr. Mitchell taught class, he seldom used counts. Instead he used sounds, like ‘Tiki tiki, ta, tahhh!’ That gives you more of a sense of how movement flows in relation to the music than counting does.  For him, it wasn’t about the counts.  It was more about the energy and rhythmic motivation.”  His tactile way of correcting dancers also helped with muscle memory, Graf says. “He would manipulate your body, physically lifting a leg higher or turning it out. He was very tactile. For me, it created a better understanding.”[81]  It was not unusual for him to relate an exercise or combination performed in class to dances they were performing on stage.

Many dancers remember Mitchell’s company class as special. “In some places company class is designed to help dancers warm up before rehearsal. Not at DTH,” Graf says. “Company class could sometimes stretch beyond the usual hour and a half because if Mr. Mitchell didn’t like the way you were doing pas de bourrées, we would have to repeat pas de bourrée, pas de bourrée, pas de bourrée across the floor.  For Mr. Mitchell company class was...a technique class where you were going to grow whether you were an apprentice or a senior member of the company. So, as a young dancer, that was very helpful.  I hadn’t finished my training when I got into DTH, but by the time I left I felt like I had a very good understanding of my body within the classical idiom.”[82]

Mitchell’s focus on education extended beyond the dance studio.  In fact, he has said that the young dancers were like family, but he was, undeniably, the patriarch.  “Here at Dance Theater, everyone calls me Mr. Mitchell.  Because these kids are too familiar,” he said during an interview, adding with a mischievous grin an imagined conversation with a student, “‘Hey, Arthur,’ I say, ‘No.  No.  No.  Did you roll over in bed this morning and see my face?’  No.  It’s Mr. Mitchell!”[83]  Dancers remember him taking them to see a New York City Ballet performance of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue when he was dancing the role of the Hoofer with ballerina Suzanne Farrell.  Others recall him taking them to fundraising events and giving them pointers on how to dress and behave.  He even arranged discounts with Capezio and found a way for dancers to get free pointe shoes.  Sheila Rohan explains how.  “American Ballet Theatre sent us shoes that had been worn by their dancers. You should have seen us fighting over those shoes. We wanted shoes that belonged to specific ballerinas.”[84]  Then there was the dress code.  DTH dancers were given explicit instructions on how to present themselves when in public.  Joselli Audain Deans and other dancers recalls that he would tell them when they were preparing to leave on one of their many tours, “I don’t want you walking through the airport looking like who shot John. You represent something bigger than [your]selves.”[85]

“Here was a group of people who really had the same vision, who came together to make it happen with someone who had already experienced what we were trying to achieve,” Anjali Austin says, recalling her years with the company.[86]  That bond of shared expectation was a driving force for both teachers and dancers.  In some ways the structure of DTH was like that of other companies, but in important ways, it was also different. “DTH was not a hierarchy but a family. When a new person came into the company, the senior members nurtured them. They would give you little pointers if they saw you struggling with a movement. They might suggest, “Think about doing it this way. Or, take your time, don’t rush.”[87]

DTH dancers felt that they were on a shared mission, Virginia Johnson recalls.  This was underlined in many ways. For example, when someone new joined the company, senior dancers would take them under their wing, actually becoming their “mother” or “father” and giving them life-style tips to help them adapt to life as a professional dancer.  Johnson was Anjali Austin’s “mother,” and Alex Sampson her “father.”  Both, she says, played a key role in helping her adjust to the technical and emotional demands of learning the company’s diverse and demanding repertory, which included neoclassical Balanchine works such as The Four Temperament and Serenade, classical ballets like Swan Lake, and more modern, ethnic works, like Mitchell’s Rhythmetron.[88]

“The principals usually stood in the front of the class,” Austin recalls. “Then one day the female principal dancers had us change places with them so we had the experience of standing in front of the class while they stood in the back. It was empowering. There was the belief that you’ve got to get used to being in front. They were sharing this experience, rearing us up. Showing us that if you’re in front you’ve got to step it up without actually saying that.”  Simple gestures like that, she adds, “helped teach me to think of myself as an artist.”[89]

Early DTH dancers to this day feel themselves members of a special family and beneficiaries of a truly unique experience.  Melva Murray-White, a member of the corps de ballet in those early years, said tearfully during a recent interview, “I will be forever grateful to Mr. Mitchell for the opportunity he gave me.”[90]  Like many others Sheila Rohan echoed that sentiment saying, “My DTH experience was the most wonderful experience of my life.” She added, “I had always wanted to dance. I’m glad I had it for whatever time. As far as I’m concerned, I had a wonderful career thanks to Mr. Mitchell and DTH.”  When asked if she realized at the time that they were making history, Rohan said, “No, but Arthur always said we were. When we did the Guggenheim Museum”—where the company made its official debut on January 8, 1971—“that was when we got the feeling because of all of the people there, mainly white people, although there were some Blacks there, too.  Mr. Mitchell rehearsed us to death for that performance. He kept saying, ‘You’re special. This is something the world hasn’t seen so it’s got to be right. You have to put your best foot forward.’”[91]

The experience was gratifying, but it was also stressful.  When DTH debuted at the Guggenheim, it was being introduced to an audience of balletomanes, potential donors, critics, friends, and family members in the international dance capital, home of the country’s two major ballet companies that had only one African American dancer among their roughly 200 members.  Few in the audience that night knew the complicated history of Blacks in ballet, but most realized that these young people represented the hopes and dreams of many.  So when this company of Black and brown ballet dancers stepped onto the stage in the museum’s circular lobby, Rohan says that it hit her like a thunderbolt, “There’s something important going on in this company, and I’m a part of it.”[92]

Dance Theatre of Harlem:  More than a Company

From the beginning DTH was more than a company.  It was a community of dancers and supporters united by a shared dream of cultural self-determination and equality in an era crackling with energy at the intersection of culture and politics and the struggle for social and economic justice.  Supporting the school and company, like the pillars of a complex architectural structure, were programs that strengthened DTH’s ties to Harlem and beyond—Open House events, lecture-demonstrations, a junior company, street fairs and bazaars, costume, lighting, and music workshops. There was even a six-page, typed quarterly newsletter, entitled “Dance Theatre of Harlem is Doing Things in Harlem,” with columns labeled “Company Notes,” “Personals,” and “Dear Parents and Friends.”

The February 1973 newsletter announced that the monthly Open House events had been so successful over the past two months that they would now be regularly held on the first Sunday of every month from 3-5 p.m.  Readers were also told that the fantastically successful Harlem Homecoming on November 13 had received “excellent press coverage,” raised $96,000, and been featured in window displays showing the Harlem Homecoming logo and photographs of the dance company by Lord Snowdon and Martha Swope.  They were also told that DTH’s Rhythmetron was the subject of a one-hour Channel 13 special and that for tour groups the company headquarters was one of Harlem’s must-see landmarks.  Folks learned that free tickets to the New York City Ballet were regularly offered to DTH students, were thanked “for services to help DTH,” and urged to register for Zelda Wynn’s Fashion Workshop, to learn “everything you need to know about creating your own wardrobe.”[93]

Like a community bulletin board the newsletter carried tidbits about the DTH Junior Company, headed by Marie Brooks, and announced, in 1973, that the Kirov-influenced  husband-and-wife duo Annamarie and David Holmes were assisting Shook in restaging Giselle—more than a decade before the premiere of Creole Giselle staged by Frederic Franklin.  The “Personals” column announced that Mitchell was hosting a “Twelfth Night” party at the home of Tanaquil Le Clercq, while “Company Notes” listed the sixteen cities and countries on an upcoming DTH tour culminating in the company’s “big New York Season next fall and winter,” along with news that the Department of the Interior had invited DTH to do a three-week residency at the historic Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C.[94]

While community outreach activities were important, lecture-demonstrations seemed to play a key role in Mitchell’s strategic game-plan, attracting future dancers, audiences, and local cultural ambassadors.  Moreover, as mini-performances before live audiences they helped the fledgling company refine its skills.  Alicia Graf recalls that Mitchell’s lecture-demonstrations were always a big hit.

“Mr. Mitchell would do things to wow the audience. He would say, “Alicia, come here.”  Then he would lift my leg up to my ear and be like, “On the count of three, I’m going to let go and you’re going to hold your leg there.”  And the whole audience, the kids, would go, “Ah-h-h-h!”  It would be exciting for them. Mr. Mitchell used ordinary, everyday language.  He knew how to bring the drama.  For instance, he would say, “Ok, what’s going to happen is this dancer is going to run across the floor, and she’s going to jump up in the air, and her partner is going to pluck her out of the air.”  That sounds like it’s amazing, and all the dancer did is run and do a grand jeté and jump into the guy’s arms like a cradle, but he made it sound like a big deal to those kids.  Then there were the sports references.  Asking kids if they like Michael Jordan, he would then refer to his 360 degree turns in the air and ask the kids if they’d like to see the male dancers do a 720 degree turn in the air and have all the guys go for it. Mr. Mitchell would have the male dancers do a double tour en l’air and the kids would be like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s incredible!!!’”[95]

Mitchell’s almost missionary zeal to bring new audiences into the fold broke down barriers and, at the same time, inspired many people unfamiliar with ballet to support DTH and its company of Black ballet dancers.

A Company is Born:  Dancers and Repertory

While Harlem Homecomings, benefit galas, Open Houses, celebrity supporters, lecture-demonstrations, newsletters, acting, music, and fashion programs, and community and family ties all supported the Dance Theatre of Harlem in its early years, the most important components, aside from Mitchell and Shook, were the dancers and the company’s repertory.

When DTH performed at Jacob’s Pillow in August 1970, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the New York Times, “No young company has made such progress in so short a time. Its potentialities are already evident…. With a broader repertory and increased professionalism, it could...also become a major American ballet company.”[96]  The word “miracle” was also tossed around quite a bit as critics responded to DTH’s rapid development with shock and awe and sought to uncover the secret to the company’s rapid success. Karel Shook said,

“The secret of the company’s spectacular rise, if it is a secret, lies in the dancers themselves; the care given them by their teachers; and in the broad and varied repertory they dance—which demands of them a versatility that until now was the property of only a few special artists. The miracle springs from total dedication, and an unshakeable belief in what is being done and to what purpose and adherence to tradition.  The joie de vivre, the élan, the expansive freedom of Dance Theatre of Harlem, both company and school, is structured within the framework of a fierce discipline—that of classical ballet.”[97]

In the very early 1970s, when DTH was first introduced to the public at Jacob’s Pillow and the Guggenheim Museum, the dancers only performed works choreographed by Mitchell.  Programs were designed to showcase the dancers’ technical facility, de-emphasize their weaknesses, and create an artistic profile that reflected Mitchell’s idea of a total dancer, an idea perhaps shaped by his own stylistically diverse roots, which included neoclassical, modern, and ethnic elements.  Yet, one style seemed to dominate.  Kisselgoff came away from the Jacob’s Pillow program, which featured Mitchell’s Balanchine-influenced Holberg Suite, the contemporary Ode to Otis and Biosfera, and ritual-like Rhythmetron, convinced of DTH’s “affinity with a well-known major American ballet company.”[98]  Yet, Mitchell’s nod in other directions could not be ignored.  In Rhythmetron the small, fine-boned, barefoot priestess figure with the articulate torso was Patsy Rickets, a former member of Rex Nettleford’s Jamaican National Dance Theatre, who had studied ballet but was essentially a modern dancer. “In the beginning Patsy wore pointe shoes,” Sheila Rohan says.  “She [could] do a ballet barre.  But after awhile she told Mr. Mitchell she wouldn’t wear pointe shoes any more because they hurt her feet so much she would cry.  So, in Rhythmetron she was the high priestess.   In Forces of Nature she was a skirt girl.  She was never the ballet girl because she wasn’t going to put on those pointe shoes.”[99]

Asserting his commitment to stylistic diversity, Mitchell said he didn’t want DTH to be a Black version of NYCB.  “We’re a mongrel breed, and that’s a positive thing,” Mitchell once told an interviewer.

“In classical ballet, for instance, we’ve incorporated what we inherited from the different schools—from the Russian, the Italian, the French, the English, the Danish.... But from that mix of ancestry, something new and distinctive has emerged.  Another thing about the American dancer—he doesn’t limit himself to classical ballet.  No, he can also do jazz, modern, tap maybe, and ethnic, and those forms all go to enrich his classical work. Well, these are the qualities we’re about at Dance Theatre and we’re working toward a distinct look, a style that will be unmistakably our own—classical and authentically American.”[100]

DTH doesn’t isolate “the legs or pelvis,” Mitchell added, “but uses the entire body.” With ballet as their foundation and dominant technique, DTH dancers were expected to smoothly transition to other styles—modern, jazz, and primitive, which emphasized the “freedom of the torso” that Mitchell advocated.  After all, Mitchell noted, classical ballet provided, “the strongest technical base,” yet someone with only a ballet background “doesn’t understand what you’re talking about.”  It was this diversity of movement and repertory, Mitchell believed, that makes DTH authentically American.[101]

During the company’s early years, some viewed its eclectic repertory as a pragmatic approach to the absence of what one critic called “a superlatively gifted resident choreographer” or, possibly, “the need to present a medley of entertainment to attract and hold a large public of divergent tastes and varying degrees of sophistication.”[102]  Anna Kisselgoff, writing in the New York Times, disagreed.  “One of the things said about DTH in recent years was that it had a repertory problem,” she wrote in 1979.  This, she insisted, was “ironic” since DTH had started with “an instant legacy of ballets by George Balanchine.”[103]  Others insisted that because DTH was an all-Black classical ballet company blessed with a storehouse of Balanchine works, it had a ready-made identity.  Mitchell reminded them that DTH, like any ballet company, was obliged to establish a strongly defined artistic identity.  Time would prove that this was precisely what he was doing.

In March 1971 DTH participated in the City Center American Dance Marathon at the ANTA Theatre, with a program tailored to highlight the company’s strengths and blend of modern and ethnic elements, while showing off the dancers’ palpable yet restrained pride and joy in performance—evident not only in the more familiar works like Mitchell’s own Fun and Games, Biosfera, and Fete Noire, and Rhythmetron but also in John Taras’ Design for Strings and two works from the New York City Ballet repertory—Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco and Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun.  In fact, Mitchell might have had those last three ballets in mind when he said that certain dances “already have a standard of performance—that DTH has to equal and surpass. And the dancers know it.”[104]  In the coming years, Mitchell and Shook would challenge the young performers with works that demanded increased technical facility and artistry while at the same time seeking to refine the company’s distinctive profile.  After all, Mitchell insisted he wanted the company to be known, not as a Black ballet company but a ballet company that happened to be Black.  As he told the London Times critic John Percival, “We don’t want people to think of as as a black ballet company.  Of course, we are black, and because we are the first, that is the point of interest that gets people into the theatre.  But after watching, even just for three minutes, I hope you forget that.  What matters is not the color of the skin, but whether a dancer is a good dancer or not.”[105]

At first, as the company worked to gain its footing, these balletic high bars were premiered in smaller, less conspicuous venues—churches, art galleries, schools, or during out-of-town engagements.  Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, a ballet whose precision mirrors that of the Bach double violin concerto that accompanies it, premiered in June 1970 at Bermuda’s City Hall Theatre before opening DTH’s first major New York engagement.  Consequently, when time came for that ANTA debut, Virginia Johnson, Lydia Abarca, and Clover Mathis, who danced the leads, were ready. Abarca says that their coach, NYCB’s Melissa Hayden, “was a tough one. She was very precise. Balanchine came in to look at it.  I was terrified.  He didn’t say much but seemed pleased,” she added. “At one point he said ‘OK, let’s see what the next step is.  He loved us, and just knowing that he loved Arthur and let Arthur do his ballets meant a lot.”[106]  It was Abarca and Clover Mathis in the company premiere of Robbins’ masterpiece Afternoon of a Faun that prompted the New York Times critic Clive Barnes to gush, “The lissome Miss Abarca was beautiful as the shy nymph of the ballet classroom, and Clover Mathis was equally effective as the narcissistic, indolent hero.”[107]  Reminiscing, Abarca says, “Arthur brought Cicely Tyson in to coach me in that role, and she gave me so many images to support the steps.  She taught me to internalize what was happening.”[108] After praising the company for its brilliant dancing in Rhythmetron, Barnes concluded, “To have done so well in so short a time certainly shows promise—but even now this young company is rich in achievement.  Mr. Mitchell and his associate, Karl [sic] Shook, are doing a great job.”[109]

Domestically, the company hopscotched the country from New York to California performing in venues that ranged from the Kennedy Center to the Los Angeles Inner City Theatre.  There was a spate of national television appearances, included WNBC’s Today and Positively Black, and PBS’s “Dance in America,” among others.  DTH lecture-demonstrations attracted as many as 13,000 kids to Washington, D.C.’s Ford Theatre and 3,000 to Columbia University’s McMillan Hall.  The success of the company’s first ANTA engagement fueled two consecutive European tours (1971 and 1972).  DTH also rekindled interest in Harlem with two highly publicized Harlem Homecoming galas.  Both were held in the newly refurbished 2,260-seat Loew’s Victoria Theatre on West 125th Street, and the first, on November 13, 1972, grossed $97,000.  The second, held on November 13, 1973, with tickets priced from $5 - $25, was also successful.[110]

According to the Times society reporter Charlotte Curtis, invitations to the first Homecoming read, “Come on back in ermine, pearls and jeans,” prompting “many a white liberal discussion about what one should and should not wear to Harlem in 1972.”  In the end, they brought the rich and famous uptown. A friendly crowd of onlookers greeted a crush of bold-faced names, heiresses, and celebrities who, after buffet suppers at the Raffle Club, 21, and Waldorf, had “climbed into rented buses or limousines, locked the doors, joked about whether or not they were safe” before heading “to what for most was as foreign a place as Timbuktu.” “A river of red plush—enough to carpet 30 football fields” primed the theater for the all-star benefit revue attended by, among others, Mayor and Mrs. Lindsay, Lord Snowden (husband of Britain’s Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth), Mrs. Bernard F. Gimbel, Mrs. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II (whose late husband, like Richard Rodgers, had been born in Harlem).  Performers, in addition to DTH, included Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne, Leontyne Price, Hazel Scott, Diana Sands, Bobby Short, Pigmeat Markham, Burt Lancaster, Carmen McRae and Sidney Poitier, Josephine Premice, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, to name a few.[111]  The following year, the gala’s equally impressive sequel resulted in an NBC-TV special of that benefit featuring Tony Bennett, James Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, the Black classical Symphony of the New World, conducted by Kermit Diton Moore, and the Peter Duchin Orchestra.  Afterward, chartered buses carried audience members home “using routes along Central Park West, Fifth Avenue and First Avenue, among others.”[112]

In the 1970s DTH made several successful European tours, performing in Italy, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Belgium, and England—all of which were both a treat and a challenge.  DTH dancer Anjali Austin recalls “the first tour was about the excitement of going to Europe for the first time. I remember that while we were on the plane on our way over there we broke into We Are Family.”[113]  One of the biggest challenges the dancers encountered was having to adjust their body alignment when dancing on the typically raked stages among other things.  Austin remembers an incident when the company was performing at an outdoor theatre in Italy, and the stage became slippery: when dew began to fall so did the dancers.  “Serenade was the first ballet. Well, people were falling all over the place. I did the entire piece on half-pointe.  Voluntaries was after that.  I remember there was one woman who came around the corner, and she slipped, and all of a sudden she flew past me rolling down the back.  It was horrible.  We were pretty shaken afterwards, but by the end of it there were no injuries. We were supposed to do Firebird, but Mr. Mitchell came back saying, ‘I can’t take it. Let’s just do Dougla.’ Later, Mr. Mitchell told us there’s a saying that if you fall somewhere you know you’ll be back.  I think he told us that at the [New York] State Theater in Lincoln Center, so when he said it, everyone fell to the floor.”[114]

Falls and other mishaps notwithstanding, Austin echoes a sentiment shared by so many of the DTH dancers, that each of these little milestones gave them the feeling that “OK, the striving, the effort, was worth it. This is achievable. This is possible.”  That feeling grew stronger as the company took on more and more difficult repertory.  Throughout the 1970s, Mitchell crafted a repertory tailored to and aiding in the dancers’ technical and artistic evolution.  A core of Balanchine ballet served to demonstrate the company’s command of the neoclassical style even as a generous mix of works by ballet, modern, and ethnic choreographers highlighted the versatility Mitchell wanted to stress.

By 1974, when the company had its first two-week Broadway season at the ANTA Theatre, Mitchell’s strategy was perceived as a success.  Reviewing the season in The New Yorker, critic Arlene Croce wrote, “Four years ago, when the company was founded...it existed as a somewhat shakily experimental division of black dance.  Today it is an expression of American ballet and potentially one of the richest.... The way these dancers take the stage lets you know they were born to it.”  Overlooking the questionable use of the ambiguous term “Black dance,” Croce correctly noted that the DTH dancers had “outgrown most of Mitchell’s challenges,” prompting him to develop new ones.[115]

One of the most noteworthy new challenges of DTH’s 1974 ANTA season was Balanchine’s masterpiece Agon.  DTH had premiered the ballet on June 27, 1971 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.  Virginia Johnson recalls Patricia Neary, one of Mitchell’s New York City Ballet partners, coming to Spoleto to coach.  “Arthur was the main stager; after all he was in the first cast of NYCB’s production.  Pat Neary was actually there to give more of the details of what the women danced.”[116]  Mitchell was not only in the ballet’s first cast, but the pas de deux, the ballet’s centerpiece and the first section that Balanchine choreographed, was set on Mitchell and Diana Adams.  And, while Balanchine in an interview with John Gruen denied that he was “political,”[117] Agon’s creation in 1957 at the height of the Civil Rights era, its title[118] (Greek for contest or protagonist), and the fact that the pivotal pas de deux featured an African American man partnering a white woman, all enhance the symbolic significance of this second ballet given by Balanchine to Mitchell’s Black ballet company.  Of course, what dance historian Brenda Dixon-Gottschild refers to as the “jazz-Africanist inflected elements” in both Stravinsky’s music and Balanchine’s choreography, wore well on DTH, a company Gottschild describes as having “made a formal institution of the ultimate taboo in ballet—the black dancing body.”[119]  Even without reading too much into it, critics like Peter Williams found DTH’s performance distinctive.  “In certain ways,” he wrote in the British magazine Dance and Dancers, “the Harlem dancers bring out something that I haven’t been aware of from any other company.... For a young company, many of whose members were not dancing five years ago, to get to grips with a work of this kind and give it such style and maturity is achievement indeed.”[120]  Lydia Abarca, the DTH dancer who premiered the pas de deux with Derek Williams, says simply, “It was jazz, and I loved it.”[121]

In the 1970s, following Agon and Concerto Barocco, the Dance Theatre of Harlem eagerly tackled other Balanchine neoclassical works, many of which Mitchell had danced at NYCB—Bugaku (1975), Allegro Brillante (1975), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (1977), The Four Temperaments (1979), and Serenade (1979).  They were complemented by Mitchell’s own Balanchine-influenced ballets, including Fête Noire (1971), a “neo-clasdical romp—all glittering chandeliers, Hussar élan, and tutus—with swift leaps, bravura elevations, charming formation,” dedicated to DTH’s benefactress Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel, that for years would be a DTH repertory staple.  Other ballets introduced during that time, like Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun (1971), John Taras’ Design for Strings (1971), and William Dollar’s Combat (1975) highlighted the company’s growing facility and Mitchell’s fruitful NYCB and other professional ties.  Several works explored the movement, music, and mood of the African Diaspora in their ritual overtones, percussive scores, and colorful costumes.  These included Mitchell’s Rhythmetron, Louis Johnson’s Forces of Rhythm (1971), and Geoffrey Holder’s colorful and dynamic nods to his Caribbean roots Belé (1973), Dougla (1974), Banda (1982), and even Firebird (1982), for which he created the spectacular designs.  All seemed successful manifestations of Mitchell’s desire for DTH to expand ballet’s stylistic boundaries.  In fact, Balanchine once described Forces of Rhythm as a work designed “to capture the essence of ballet and ethnic dancing styles in such a way as to display the rapport, beauty, and relationship between the two.”[122]  Critic Robert Greskovic declared Dougla a “breathtakingly beautiful” piece, a cross-cultural choreographic blend of “an onslaught of striding, stomping footwork; gyrating, thrusting and bumping hipwork; waggling index fingers, and nodding heads.... When the stage fills with these leanly muscled men against an essentially black backdrop with yellow and green side-lighting, the picture is breathtakingly beautiful.”[123]

DTH’s repertory in this period also incorporated contemporary works, such as Choo San Goh’s Introducing... (1978), with its mix of strong neoclassical and modern styles, which DTH first performed at Columbia University’s Wollman Auditorium.  Other works that acknowledge Mitchell’s own modern dance background and ties, included James Truitte’s expert revival of Lester Horton’s The Beloved (1971), a drama of marital infidelity and murder; Billy Wilson frothy Mirage (The Games People Play) (1979), Talley Beatty’s Caravansarai (1974), and Carmen de Lavallade’s ritualistic Sensemaya (1979).  A handful of virtuoso pas de deux displayed the technical bravura of the company’s emerging stars: among these showstoppers were Karel Shook’s staging of the Corsaire pas de deux (1973) for Paul Russell and Laura Brown; Gabrielle Taub-Darvash’s balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet (1976) for Russell and Lydia Abarca; and Mitchell’s The Greatest (1977) for Russell and Virginia Johnson.  Russell’s performance in Le Corsaire prompted Robert Greskovic to declare in Ballet Review, “And, yes, DTH has a STAR,” adding “his steps and phrasing have a classical evenness that builds in minute degrees to his crashing climaxes.”  He added, “If you had told me he was the first black Bolshoi star, I’d believe it.”[124]

In 1972 the repertory also included a collaboration with Ruth Page’s Chicago Ballet at the Civic Theatre that resulted in what a company flyer called “two electrifying ballets of love and death.”  A bit reminiscent of the NYCB-DTH collaboration the year before, this one, billed as “two outstanding troupes of black and white artists,” brought the two companies together in Page’s Carmina Burana and Carmen.  The flyer’s description seems to foreshadow the transposition used in the company’s production of Giselle more than a decade later, as the locale for Page’s Carmen (or Carmen and José) shifted from Spain to a place “reminiscent of Puerto Rico, where they still have bullfights and where haunting Caribbean rhythms intermingle with Spanish and American dances.”[125]

Yet, as the 1970s ended, Mitchell was hit with a serious challenge—a one-two punch of financial and administrative crises that threatened the company’s very survival.  A New York Times article disclosed that DTH was carrying an accumulated deficit of $400,000, but total indebtedness brought that amount to $500,000.  It also saw a 30% drop in private support and a 20% hike in expenses.  And, when the Ford Foundation pulled its funding after a decade of generous support, “the perennial financial strain became severe,” managing director William Terry told a reporter, adding, “We have not been able to replace that chunk of money.”[126] 

This was not the first time DTH had faced an acute financial crisis.  In 1977, even as it was winning hearts and minds and opening eyes to the value of diversity, the company was forced to cancel its New York season and did not schedule a major one for the following year.  But, the ever-resilient Mitchell found another way to keep the company’s momentum going.  In 1978, a year shy of its tenth anniversary, Mitchell, Shook, and then President William J. McGill of Columbia University held a press conference to announce an unprecedented collaboration.  Highlighting the two institutions’ common concern with arts education, they committed to producing three performance programs on the Columbia campus—an Easter event with Marian Anderson that would benefit DTH, an “Arts Exposure” series in June, and, in September the dance company’s second year of community dance concerts building on a previous year’s series that drew overflow crowds.  In addition, it was announced that DTH’s technical department would be transferred to a Columbia building, thus allowing the university’s theater students to study stage carpentry, lighting, design, and other technical aspects of dance production.[127]  During the fall 1978 concert series at Columbia, DTH premiered works by several choreographers—Carlos Carvajal’s Shades of Evening and Choo San Goh’s Introducing... and Variations Serieuses.

The second challenge that Mitchell faced in the late 1970s was the abrupt departure of eleven of the company’s twenty-four dancers, including two of its critically acclaimed stars, Paul Russell and Lydia Abarca.  “They called us the dumb eleven,” Abarca says softly, explaining why she accepted a part in the motion picture The Wiz, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and later in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Cotton Club.  “I was the oldest of seven kids growing up in the projects on 125th Street in Harlem. I wanted to give back to my parents for all their hard work raising us.”[128]  Other dancers had other reasons.  While some observers painted the exodus as a capitulation to the financial lure of commercialism, some of the dancers said it was about more than that, explaining that they wanted to join ballet companies where they could perform the very works that made them fall in love with ballet in the first place—the iconic nineteenth-century classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle that were not part of DTH’s repertory.  Calling it a “talent drain,” Arlene Croce in The New Yorker reported that DTH “lost Mel Tomlinson to New York City Ballet and that was on top of Ronald Perry’s transfer to American Ballet Theatre and Lydia Abarca’s defection to ‘Dancin’’ and Hinton Battle’s to ‘Sophisticated Ladies.’”[129]

Thanks to Mitchell’s dogged determination DTH survived these challenges, which another company might have found insurmountable.  Speaking to a New York Times reporter about the “traumatic experience” a few days before the company’s 1979 City Center season, its first in two years, Mitchell declared triumphantly, “City Center is the theater where I started dancing, and it’s almost natural that this whole thing—our 10th anniversary, starting new, starting fresh—should be happening at the same place.”[130]  What’s more, Mitchell devoted one night of that successful season to his mentors with a program entitled, “A Salute to George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein,” that also made a serious statement about the company’s artistic standing despite recent events with the premiere of two major Balanchine ballets—The Four Temperaments and Serenade.  Croce wrote that instead of an identity crisis, “In reality you have a formidable institution, organized not around personnel but around clear-cut aesthetic goals.”[131]

When Lorraine Graves, who performed Choleric in The Four Temperaments, was asked if she and the other dancers were nervous that night, she said that being nervous was out of the question.  “Mr. Mitchell had rehearsed us and rehearsed us and rehearsed us.  Vicky [Victoria] Simon had coached us.  Everybody was there.  We had live music.  That was a challenge.  But, we had rehearsed to piano, so for me I kind of knew once I got out there, I’d just go for it.  With my height, Choleric was the perfect role.  The whole idea of what it means and the power of the movement suited me.”[132]  Critics agreed, singling out her “fiery” Choleric in the ballet that was “the evening’s highlight.”[133] Serenade was another triumph.  When the curtain rose on its “rows and rows of girls with arms upraised,” there were “gasps,” critic Anna Kisselgoff noted, “at the sight of unalloyed beauty and the pleasure of the images...audibly echoed throughout the performance,” proving both the power of the ballet and DTH’s rendition of it.  “The test of any classical ballet company is, in fact, its classicism,” Kisselgoff declared, adding that it was a test that DTH had “passed with flying colors.”[134]

On the eve of the company’s 1980 New York season, after surviving seemingly insurmountable odds and winning national and international critical acclaim, Mitchell declared a dramatic shift in focus saying that Dance Theatre of Harlem was “at a crossroads.”[135]  Convinced that the company had demonstrated to the world that Black men and women could dance ballet, Mitchell felt that it was “time to establish our dancers as individual artists” by providing them with “roles of star caliber.”[136] Two years later he told arts writer John Gruen that DTH would be adding several “strong dramatic works” to the repertory, works that would “serve as major vehicles for our dancers—talents such as Virginia Johnson, Lowell Smith, Stephanie Baxter, Karen Brown, Donald Williams and Yvonne Hall, among others.”  He insisted, “Let’s face it, quality is quality—and quality transcends class, color, race, creed—everything.”[137]

By 1982 the company had turned a corner both artistically and administratively. While, in the past, due to DTH’s generous scholarship program, the professional company, which earned 65% of the budget, had supported the school, the fiscal reality dictated that that needed to change.  Numerous educational programs had to be curtailed.  The board was restructured.  Mitchell hired a new managing director and an outside public relations firm, and a search was underway for a professional fundraiser.  Mitchell even talked of moving part of the operation into Midtown Manhattan,“where we’ll maintain offices and additional studio space.” He told Gruen that “many people cling to the negative aspects of Harlem and they resist coming up there.”[138]  The move never materialized.

During the 1980 City Center season DTH offered the first performance of two nineteenth-century Russian classics.  Mitchell brought in former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo stars Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin, her long-time partner and founding director of Washington’s National Ballet, to restage the Grand Pas from Marius Petipa’s Paquita and for Franklin alone to mount the second act of Swan Lake.  “To be able to work with people like Danilova and Franklin was a wonderful experience,” Mitchell told Jack Anderson before the season began.  “They have such a wealth of knowledge.  And they care about every last detail.  Moreover, Madame Danilova is serving as a kind of role model for our women.  There comes a time when young women who long to be ballerinas need to work with a great ballerina and to have a great ballerina to inspire them.  Madame Danilova is our company’s inspiration.”[139]  To accommodate the ballets’ large female ensembles the company was expanded to thirty regular members and ten apprentices. Paquita, as critic Anna Kisselgoff noted, drew “many prominent dance figures who packed the house at City Center.”  While declaring that “there is no point in pretending the Dance Theater of Harlem danced it as brilliantly as it will one day,” she predicted that the revival “is sure to be one of the bright spots of the dance season.”[140]  She was less taken with Swan Lake, feeling that the company had yet to find “the style to approach the core” of the ballet.[141]  Nancy Goldner, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, thought just the opposite.  “‘Swan Lake’...works because each girl in the corps has been inculcated with a sense of time and place...impart[ing] an immediacy and specificity of action. The slant of their necks and soft droop of their arms speak nocturnal mournfulness.  The lightness of their footwork indicates an enchanted place.  The famous entrance of the swans is here so fleet as to make a completely new statement.”[142]  Mitchell’s defiant statement before the start of the season—“If anyone still refuses to believe” that blacks could dance classical ballet, “that’s their problem, not ours”—was amply justified.[143]

These first nineteenth-century works were quickly followed by a spate of other treasures, many of them dance-dramas with a historic connection to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (although some went back to the early twentieth century) and many staged by Franklin.  Michel Fokine’s Scheherazade (1910/1981) was the company’s first major narrative ballet, followed in short order by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone’s bawdy slice of Americana, Frankie and Johnny (1937/1981). Other dance dramas included John Taras’ enchanting, exotic Firebird (1982), with scenery and costumes designed by Geoffrey Holder; Valerie Bettis’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1952/1982), inspired by the Tennessee Williams play; Domy Reiter-Soffer’s Equus: The Ballet (1980/1982), based on the Peter Shaffer play; John Butler’s Othello (1976/1982); Bronislava Nijinska’s witty ballet Les Biches (1924/1983); Agnes de Mille’s gripping drama Fall River Legend (1948/1983); David Lichine’s delightful light-hearted Graduation Ball (1940/1983); Jerome Robbins’ light-hearted Fancy Free (1944/1985); and the company’s first (and only) full-length classic, Giselle (1984).  While this turn toward dance-dramas and revivals was generally well-received by critics and audiences alike, Mitchell remained faithful to DTH’s neoclassical roots, adding Balanchine’s Square Dance (1983) and Stars and Stripes (1984) to its repertory.  The commitment to artistic diversity was also unshaken with the addition of modern and Africanist works such as Glen Tetley’s Greening (1980) and Voluntaries (1984), David Gordon’s Piano Movers (1985), and Geoffrey Holder’s Songs of the Auvergne (1982) and Banda (1982).

While many of the ballets produced during the early 1980s were important, two of the most significant were John Taras’ Firebird (an original work but nodding to its Fokine and Balanchine predecessors) and Frederic Franklin’s staging of the nineteenth-century Romantic ballet Giselle.  Both are classics, but seen through Mitchell’s eyes they are classics with a twist, dramatically reflecting his desire to make audiences see ballet through a different lens.  Mitchell had long dreamed of staging Firebird, which had been a New York City Ballet staple during his years with the company, but only now, with DTH’s shift in artistic orientation, did he make that dream a reality.  “Our repertory showed that many classics were applicable to blacks,” Virginia Johnson once told the dance writer Valerie Gladstone. “That’s why Mr. Mitchell commissioned a Creole ‘Giselle’ and an African ‘Firebird’ for us to dance.”[144]

Firebird takes place in a magical world conjured up by Geoffrey Holder’s color-splashed costumes and sets that evoke images of an enchanted forest somewhere along the African Diaspora.  Stephanie Dabney, with a sequined and feathered headdress and red, tail-feathered costume, was the company’s first Firebird, Lorraine Graves its first Princess of Unreal Beauty.  Dabney loved the “passion and drama” of the music.  “This is a role,” she told viewers of a television special about the ballet, “where you get to really dance and be a part of the music and be the music.  It pushes you,...fills your insides, and makes the emotion come out.”[145]  Critics declared the new version of Stravinsky’s landmark work an instant hit.  Transposed, like several of DTH productions, to what Anna Kisselgoff called “another time and clime,” DTH’s Firebird seemed to sweep the audience up and carry them off to its imaginary world.  “When the firebird figure drove out the forces of malice,” she noted, “the house cheered as if it had seen an adventure yarn.”[146]

In DTH’s production of Giselle the goal was to make the ballet more believable both to the dancers performing it and the audiences viewing it.  Mitchell transposed Théophile Gautier’s original 1841 scenario from the forests and mountains of the Rhineland to the Spanish moss-dripping bayous of Louisiana.  He also transformed the characters into a historically credible antebellum village of freed Blacks.  He made minor changes in characters’ names, so that Albrecht became Albert, significant changes in costumes, and provided both his dancers and the audience with detailed biographies of the characters. “Our Giselle is a revitalization of one of the great classics, making it ours,” Mitchell told a writer from Crisis Magazine.[147]

Popularly known as Creole Giselle, the production had its world premiere at the London Coliseum on July 18, 1984.  The American premiere at New York’s City Center followed on September 26.  As early as DTH’s first London season at Sadler’s Wells in1974, British audiences had been overwhelmingly receptive to the company, in fact, so much so that DTH had to add a return performance at the end of its 1974 European tour before returning to New York.  Giselle, ten years later, was a triumph.  “The transition to Louisiana has been achieved,” wrote Mary Clarke in The Guardian, “and there is no question that DTH has a hit.”[148]  Jann Parry in The Observer singled out the Giselle of the evening, Virginia Johnson.  She “has a luminous innocence that makes every thought and feeling transparent.  We know exactly what is going through her mind as she plucks the loves-me-loves-me-not petals or touches the hem of Bathilde’s riding habit.”[149]  There were a few quibbles over choreographic details, but all agreed with John Percival in the Times that Franklin was “blessed with a fine, sensitive Giselle in Virginia Johnson and a splendidly romantic Albert in Eddie Shellman.”[150]  Percival went on to praise the female corps of ghosts in Act II, whose “markedly curved lines, evoking a pre-Petipa style,...helps make them sinister in the way that old prints suggest the ballet always intended but rarely achieved.”  Margaret Willis, writing from London for the Christian Science Monitor, declared that “the first act poured forth like sweet molasses, exuding the finest qualities of freshness, exuberance, caring, and a sense of community.”[151]

Back home, Anna Kisselgoff declared the DTH production “tastefully and imaginatively staged, visually beautiful, adequately danced as well as joyfully and sensitively acted.”  She was not alone in praising Johnson’s “expressive and wraithful poignance in Act II” or applauding the Wilis’ “vampirish sisterhood brilliantly led with vigor by Lorraine Graves’s Amazonian Myrtha.”  Singling out others in this historic cast, she cited Eddie J. Shellman’s Albert, “always noble,” Lowell Smith’s Hilarion, Theara Ward’s Bathilde, Derek Williams as her father, Cassandra Phifer’s Berthe, Judy Tyrus and Joseph Cipolla in the Peasant Pas de Deux, and, of course, Frederic Franklin for “a superlative job” in staging the ballet.[152]  And, while not all critics reviewed the second cast, it is worth noting that New Yorker critic Arlene Croce did, praising Stephanie Dabney’s “marvelously impulsive” Giselle, Lowell Smith and Keith Saunders’ “dignified, manly” Hilarions, and Lorraine Graves, so beautiful in arabesque, who “plunges bare-legged through the role of Myrta and fills the stage with untrammelled power.”[153]

While the following year would see DTH premieres of Jerome Robbins Fancy Free, Domy Reiter-Soffer’s La Mer, and David Gordon’s Piano Movers, the highlight of 1985 would be the June opening of the company’s two-week season at the Metropolitan Opera House.   With a benefit gala attended by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan as honorary chair, the opening was a glamorous occasion, with the company’s Giselle taking center stage.  DTH’s Firebird would also dazzle audiences during that season as the company’s dancers basked in the glow of the rocky but triumphant journey from a garage on 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue to the Metropolitan Opera House.  In a review of that historic season, Clive Barnes shared a comment that Lincoln Kirstein had apparently made to Arthur Mitchell at the opening. “Kirstein, according to my bystanding ear-alert informant said:  ‘I wish George [Balanchine] had been alive to have seen this. He would have been so happy.’”[154]

The first sixteen years of the Dance Theatre of Harlem were special not only for the young, gifted Black dancers fortunate enough to experience them as members of this history-making company but also for the millions thrilled by their extraordinary performances and the countless others whose lives were affected both directly and indirectly by the company.  DTH’s accomplishments both on stage and behind the scenes were phenomenal.  Yet, in a world where the Black dancing body has long been considered an uninvited interloper, much still needs to be done. 

In 1975 Mitchell told Dance Magazine’s Olga Maynard, Someone, sometime, somewhere, decided that Black people did not have the right physique for ballet.  This decision became arbitrary.  No one realized that black boys and girls, just like white boys and girls, come in different shapes and sizes—that some children have an obvious potential for the classical technique, and some do not.  The qualifications of a ballet dancer are not in the color of his skin but in his physique and technique.”[155]  Yet, in 1997, when the New York Times writer Jennifer Dunning conducted an informal survey of ten major ballet companies across the United States, she found that of the 495 total company members only 23 were Black, 24 Asian-American, and 50 Hispanics.[156]  These numbers were not that much improved twenty years later, when Joselli Audain Deans, a dance historian and former member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, scanned the company member rosters on the websites of seventeen ballet companies and found that of their 704 dancers only 49 were Black—27 men and 22 women.[157]

Inspired by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the turbulent events of the 1960s and supported by the flurry of individual good will and government and non-government funding sources seeking to quell the highly visible and destabilizing political unrest of that era, Mitchell’s decision, from the beginning not to focus solely on training professional dancers was very significant.  So, too, was his decision to create an organization with deep ties to the broader community in which it was situated.  As a professional training ground for dancers DTH’s value is indisputable.  What has not received as much attention are the DTH’s professional education and training programs that focused on developing a variety of ancillary skills that enabled those who chose not to pursue careers as professional dancers to find employment in related technical fields. In fact, those programs opened doors for many still working in the theater today. Also, by creating an institution that recognized the importance of the ties between cultural programs and communities, Mitchell inspired a number of former company members to establish organizations on the DTH model.  One example is Homer Bryant’s Chicago Multicultural Dance Center with its innovative “Hiplet,” a merger of Hip Hop and ballet, which has drawn a young generation in Chicago’s inner city to a new form of dance.  In Atlanta, Waverly Lucas II and Nena Gilreath’s Ballethnic Academy of Dance has, for close to two decades, shared the fruits of its founders’ rich DTH experience through a dance company and classes in everything from ballet to modern, jazz, and hip hop in addition to community programs, including a very popular seasonal production of The Leopard’s Tail, mounted with the assistance of former DTH ballerina Lydia Abarca.  With his strategic and innovative 360-degree approach Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem utilized a community-based approach to arts education perhaps best captured by the African saying that “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.”

Of course, it also goes without saying that Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem added “a new dimension to the world of theatrical dance” as much as it has served as a “testament to the expansive richness of the art and the tenacity of artists who happen to be black.”[158]  In addition, what so many writers referred to in the beginning as the miracle of Dance Theatre of Harlem has been both about the transcendent power of tenacity and the transformative power of art and culture in the struggle for social, economic, and artistic self-determination and justice.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Zita Allen

 

Zita Allen currently teaches The Black Tradition in American Dance in the Ailey-Fordham BFA Program. A dance writer since the 1970s, she was the first African American critic for Dance Magazine, a founding contributor to The Feet, a 1970s Black dance publication, and has written for the New York Amsterdam News, New York Times, Village Voice, SoHo Weekly News, and Essence. Other publications include the souvenir book Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 25 Years, the Kennedy Center’s Masters of African American Choreography souvenir program, and the American Dance Festival/PBS Free to Dance documentary’s companion website. She is the author of Black Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (Scholastic) and a contributor to the Smithsonian’s Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theatre Shaped American Entertainment (Random House) and the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.  She holds an MA in Dance History from New York University.


NOTES



[1]. Ric Estrada, “Three Leading Negro Artists, and How They Feel about Dance in the Community,” Dance Magazine, November 1968, 51.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Tobi Tobias, “Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem:  An Interim Report,” Dance Magazine, January 1982, 72.

[4]. Martin Duberman, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Knopf, 2007), 573.   It is worth noting that in a 1933 letter to A. Everett Austin, Jr., the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Kirstein envisioned a company composed of “4 white girls and 4 white boys, about sixteen yrs. old and 8 of the same, negros [sic]. They would be firmly taught in the classical idiom, not only from exercises but he would start company ballets at once so they could actually learn by doing” (quoted in Francis Mason, I Remember Balanchine [New York: Anchor, 1992], 116).

[5]. Numerous sources refer to forty-eight dancers, but a flier for the event lists only twenty-three DTH “guest artists” and twenty-four NYCB dancers.  Clippings File (“Arthur Mitchell-Dance Theatre of Harlem”) (hereafter AM-DTH), Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library (hereafter NYPL).  After the earliest years of New York City Ballet, Balanchine refused to identify himself as the company’s “artistic director,” but preferred the title of “ballet master.”

[6]. “Choreographic Partners,” The New Yorker, May 22, 1971, 28.  This was an unsigned item in “The Talk of the Town.”

[7]. George Balanchine and Francis Mason, “Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra,” Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet:  Scene-by-Scene Stories of 404 Classical & Contemporary Ballets (London:  W. H. Allen, 1984), 126.

[8]. Colette Dowling, “Birth of a Black Ballet Company:  Dance Theatre of Harlem,” New York City Ballet program essay, May 1971, 13.

[9]. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet, 126.

[10]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Harlem Company to Share Stage With City Ballet,” New York Times, May 3, 1971, 47.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Author’s interview with Sheila Rohan, New York City, July 21, 2017.

[13]. Kisselgoff, “Harlem Company to Share Stage With City Ballet.”

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. Interview with Sheila Rohan.

[16]. Quoted in Kisselgoff, “Harlem Company to Share Stage.”

[17]. Clive Barnes, “Dance: City Ballet Gala,” New York Times, May 8, 1971, 17.

[18]. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet, 126.

[19]. Olga Maynard, “Dance Theatre of Harlem: Arthur Mitchell’s ‘Dark and Brilliant Splendor,’” Dance Magazine, May 1975, 56.

[20]. In an interview with Catharine Hughes for an article published in Ebony, he said: “What I ultimately would like to do is form a collaboration between the company and the school here and the company and the school there to establish a cultural exchange program” (“Poet in Motion,” Ebony, October 1968, 216).  He told dance critic Walter Terry something similar: “‘Eventually,’ Mitchell says, ‘I’d like to go there for one month every three months’” (“World of Dance: A Man of Dedication and Talent,” Saturday Review, October 19, 1968, 49).  Mitchell’s activities in Brazil with both companies are documented in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Jornal do Brasil.

[21]. Arthur Mitchell, Frederic Franklin, Lisa Attles, and Francis Mason, “NYCB and DTH: Anniversary Reflections,” Ballet Review 22, No. 3 (Fall 1994), 22.

[22]. Quoted in Jacqueline Quinn Moore Latham, “A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists—Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey—in the Idioms of Ballet and Modern Dance, Respectively,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Texas Women’s University, 1973, 249.  Latham interviewed Mitchell in August 1970.

[23]. Estrada, “Three Leading Negro Artists,” 54.

[24]. Ibid.

[25]. “Dance Comes to Harlem.  Arthur Mitchell, Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Talks to Dance & Dancers with Interjections from Co-Director, Karel Shook,” Dance and Dancers, October 1974, 14. Stevenson was later known as Aminah L. Ahmad.

[26]. “NYCB and DTH: Anniversary Reflections,” 22.

[27]. Ibid.  See, also, Gay Nagle, “The Ambassadors of 152nd Street,” New York Magazine, March [?] 1974, 14; “Stepping Out in Style,” New York Sunday News, January 9, 1972. In some accounts the figure was 200, in others 400.

[28]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 14.

[29]. Arlene Croce, “The Legacy,” in Sight Lines (New York: Knopf, 1987), 121.  This essay was originally published in The New Yorker on May 23, 1983.

[30]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 14.

[31]. Maynard, “Dance Theatre of Harlem,” 57.

[32]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 14.

[33]. Ibid.

[34]. “NYCB and DTH: Anniversary Reflections,” 22.

[35]. Ibid.

[36]. Ibid., 22-23.

[37]. Quoted in Dell Omega Grant, “Karel Shook, Dancer, is Dead; Co-founder Harlem Troupe,” New York Times, July 27, 1985, 29.

[38]. Karel Shook, “A Vignette,” Harlem Homecoming program, 1973 (Clippings File: AM-DTH), NYPL.  See, also, Olga Maynard, “Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theater of Harlem,” Dance Magazine, March 1970, 56.

[39]. “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done,” Newsweek, 20 November 20, 1967, 32-65.  This unsigned, exceptionally long cover story was produced by nearly a dozen Newsweek editors and correspondents.

[40]. Hoyt Fuller, “Towards a Black Aesthetic,” in The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (Garden City, NY:  Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1971), 7.

[41]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 17.

[42]. Quoted in Maynard, “Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem,” 56.

[43]. Tobi Tobias, “Talking with Karel Shook,” Dance Magazine, January 1973, 68.

[44]. Quoted in Maynard, “Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem,” 56.

[45]. Tobias, “Talking with Karel Shook,” 68.

[46]. Karel Shook, “The First Ten Years,” unpublished typescript, 5.  Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[47]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 14.

[48]. Author’s interview with Virginia Johnson, New York City, August 15, 20017.

[49]. Shook, “The First Ten Years,” 5.

[50]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 14.

[51]. Bernette Golden, “Dance Theater of Harlem,” Black Creation, Summer 1973, 14.

[52]. Tobi Tobias, “Talking with Karel Shook,” Dance Magazine, January 1973, 66A.

[53]. Dance Theatre of Harlem press release, undated.  Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[54]. Author’s telephone interview with Alicia Graf, October 5, 2017.

[55]. “NYCB and DTH: Anniversary Reflections,” 22.

[56]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 15.

[57]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 15-16.

[58]. Ibid., 16.

[59]. Dance Theatre of Harlem Program, Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[60]. For interviews with Eugene Von Grona and former Von Grona company members Beryl Murray and Lavinia Williams, see Zita Allen, “Pioneer Negro American Ballet at Riverside,” New York Amsterdam News, December 5, 1981, 30, and “Lavinia Williams, Village Voice, March 10, 1980, 30.  See, also, Melanye P. White-Dixon, “Marion Cuyjet, Visionary of Dance Education in Black Philadelphia,” Ph.D., Temple University, 1987.

[61]. The author conducted several interviews with Syvilla Fort before she died in November 1975.  See “Black Theatre Alliance Syvilla Fort Salute,” New York Amsterdam News, October 19, 1975, D3, and “Belafontes Salute Dancer,” New York Amsterdam News, November 5, 1975, B6.  For John Cage and Bacchanale, see Don McDonagh, “Gala Honors Syvilla For In the Dance,” New York Times, November 5, 1975, 34.

[62]. Marcia B. Siegel, “Arthur Mitchell Brings Ballet Home to Harlem,” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 1971, R10.

[63]. Constance H. Poster,“Watch Out, Whitey, Black Ballet’s Here,” New York Experiment, March-April 1971, 4.

[64]. Keith Saunders, “Dance Theatre of Harlem As An Agent of Social Change,” MFA, Hollins University, 2017, 12.

[65]. Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[66]. Interview with Virginia Johnson.

[67]. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, telecast in the Dance in America series, WNET/13, New York, March 23, 1977.

[68]. Author’s telephone interview with Lydia Abarca, May 30, 2017.

[69]. Author’s telephone interview with Lorraine Graves, November 13, 2017.

[70]. Ibid.

[71]. Jennifer Dunning, “Paul Russell, 43, Leading Dancer For the Dance Theater of Harlem,” New York Times, February 19, 1991, B10.

[72]. Hilary Ostlere, “Paul Russell on the Move,” Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[73]. Author’s interview with Sheila Rohan, New York City, July 21, 2017.

[74]. The dancers who took part in the company’s official debut at the Guggenheim Museum on January 8-10, 1971, performing Rythmetron, Tones, and Fête Noire, were: Lydia Abarca, Olinda Davis, Yvonne Hall, Virginia Johnson, Pamela Jones, Susan Lovelle, Gayle McKinney, Cassandra Phifer, Patricia Ricketts, Sheila Rohan, Ronda Sampson, Roslyn Sampson,and Llanchie Stevenson; Gerald Banks, Homer Bryant, Lazar Dano, Clover Mathis, Edward Moore, Ronald Perry, Walter Raines, William Scott, Samuel Smalls, Rodney Swan, and Derek Williams.

[75]. Interview with Lydia Abarca.

[76]. Interview with Sheila Rohan.

[77]. Author’s interview with Robert Garland, New York City, July 16, 2017.

[78]. Tobias, “Talking with Karel Shook,” 65A.

[79]. Ibid., 66A.

[80]. Interview with Alicia Graf.

[81]. Ibid.

[82]. Ibid.

[83]. “Challenge of Starting a Ballet School,” National Visionary Leadership Project, 2010, Part 7.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiDFw8mzezU

[84]. Interview with Sheila Rohan, New York City, August 16, 2017.

[85]. Author’s telephone interview with Joselli Audain Deans, November 5, 2017.

[86]. Author’s interview with Anjali Austin, New York City, July 31, 2017.

[87]. Ibid.

[88]. Interview with Virginia Johnson.

[89]. Interview with Anjali Austin.

[90]. Author’s telephone interview with Melva Murray-White (later known as China White), November 18, 2017.

[91]. Interview with Sheila Rohan.

[92]. Ibid.

[93]. “Dance Theatre of Harlem is Doing Things in Harlem,” Quarterly Newsletter of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, February 9, 1973, Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[94]. Ibid.

[95]. Interview with Alicia Graf.

[96]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Harlem Dance Theater Shows High Promise at Jacob’s Pillow,” New York Times, August 21, 1970, 21.

[97]. Karel Shook, Elements of Classical Ballet Technique as Practiced in the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem (New York: Dance Horizons, 1977), 22.

[98]. Kisselgoff, “Harlem Dance Theater Shows High Promise.”

[99]. Interview with Sheila Rohan.

[100]. Poster, “Watch Out, Whitey,” 4.

[101]. Ibid.

[102]. Tobi Tobias, “An Interim Report: Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem,” Dance Magazine, January 1982, 74.

[103]. Anna Kisselgoff, “New Works by Interesting Choreographers,” New York Times, March 4, 1979, D10.

[104]. Maynard, “Dance Theatre of Harlem,” 63.

[105].  John Percival, “Arthur Mitchell: Dance Theatre of Harlem,” Times, August 3, 1974, 9.

[106]. Interview with Lydia Abarca.

[107]. Clive Barnes, “Ballet: Mitchell’s Troupe,” New York Times, March 9, 1971, 26.

[108]. Interview with Lydia Abarca.

[109]. Ibid.

[110]. Charlotte Curtis, “In Ermine, Pearls and Jeans, They Came to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Gala,” New York Times, November 14, 1972, 43; DTH Newsletters, February 1973 and January 1974, Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[111]. Curtis, “In Ermine, Pearls and Jeans.”

[112].  “All-Star Review at Loew’s To Aid Harlem Theater,” New York Times, November 11, 1972, 27.

[113]. Interview with Anjali Austin.

[114]. Ibid.

[115]. Arlene Croce, “Forces of Harlem,” The New Yorker, May 13, 1974, p. 136.

[116]. Interview with Virginia Johnson.

[117]. John Gruen, interview with George Balanchine on the Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York City, May 29, 1971, *MGZMT 3-1328, NYPL.

[118]. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 68.

[119]. Ibid., 67.

[120]. “Dance Comes to Harlem,” 18.

[121]. Interview with Lydia Abarca.

[122]. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet, 248.

[123]. Robert Greskovic, “The Dance Theatre of Harlem: A Work in Progress,” Ballet Review 4, no. 6 (October 1974), 60.

[124]. Ibid., 47.

[125]. Flyer for “Carmen & Carmina Burana,” presented by the Ruth Page Foundation, with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Chicago Ballet, May 12-14 [1972], Clipping File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[126]. C. Gerald Fraser, “Dance Theater of Harlem Cuts Back,” New York Times, November 22, 1981, 69.

[127]. Join press release, Office of Public Information, Columbia University, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, February 22, 1978, Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[128]. Interview with Lydia Abarca.

[129]. Arlene Croce, “Starting Over,” The New Yorker, February 1, 1982, 122.

[130]. Mark Deitch, “Return of the Dance Theater of Harlem,” New York Times, February 18, 1979, D18.

[131]. Croce, “Starting Over,” 122.

[132]. Interview with Lorraine Graves.

[133]. Jack Anderson, “Dance” Harlem’s ‘4 Temperaments,’” New York Times, January 17, 1980, C24.

[134]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Dance: Harlem Troupe,” New York Times, March 1, 1979, C16.

[135]. Jack Anderson, “‘The Time Was Right To Try the Classics,’” New York Times, January 6, 1980, D14.

[136]. John Gruen, “Dance Theater of Harlem, Feeling Accepted, Sets Sights on Artistry,” New York Times, January 10, 1982, 51.

[137]. Ibid.

[138]. Ibid.

[139]. Anderson, “‘The Time Was Right To Try the Classics.’”

[140]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Dance: Harlem Troupe In a ‘Paquita’ Premiere,” New York Times, January 13, 1980, 48.

[141]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Dance: A Season Opens With Joy at City Center,” New York times, January 11, 1980, C24.

[142]. Nancy Goldner, “Making the Past Fresh,” Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1980, 18.

[143]. Anderson, “‘The Time Was Right To Try the Classics.’”

[144]. Valerie Gladstone, “Still a Mover and Shaker With Harlem on His Mind,” New York Times, March 14, 1999, AR38.  Taras created a number of roles for Mitchell during the latter’s years with New York City Ballet.

[145]. “Kennedy Center Presents Dance Theater of Harlem’s ‘Firebird,’” telecast in the “Kennedy Center Tonight” series, PBS, May 5, 1982.

[146]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Ballet: Harlem Dance Theater Presents ‘Firebird,’” New York Times, January 13, 1982, C19.

[147]. Kris Di Lorenzo, “The State of the Arts:  Dance,” Crisis Magazine, January 1986, 44.

[148]. Mary Clarke, “Giselle,” The Guardian, July 19, 1984, 10.

[149]. Jann Parry, “Giselle in Louisiana,” July 22, 1984, 17.

[150]. John Percival, “Giselle,” Times, July 19, 1984, 11.

[151]. Margaret Willis, “Dramatic, Zestful Dance Theater of Harlem in London,” Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 1984, 27.

[152]. Anna Kisselgoff, “Dance: Harlem Troupe’s ‘Giselle,’” New York Times, September 17, 1984, C15.

[153]. Arlene Croce, “‘Giselle, ou La Fill des Bayous,’” The New Yorker, October 22, 1984, 157.

[154]. Clive Barnes, “Dance Theater of Harlem:  To The (Met) Manor Born,” New York Post, June 21, 1985, Clippings File (AM-DTH), NYPL.

[155]. Maynard, “Dance Theatre of Harlem,” 56.  The italics are in the original.

[156]. Jennifer Dunning, “An Uphill Path to ‘Swan Lake,’” New York Times, February 24, 1997, C11.

[157]. Joselli Audain Deans, “The Marginalization of African American Ballet Dancers As Reflected in Dance Critical Literature: 1980-1990,” Dancing in the Millennium, Proceedings of the Society of Dance History Scholars, 124-9, and correspondence with the author.

[158]. Shook, Elements of Classical Ballet Technique, 14, 17.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 / rbml@libraries.cul.columia.edu