I had an incredible opportunity last week to reminisce about the nine years I worked at Dance Theatre of Harlem while attending a program at Columbia University that celebrated the legacy and ground-breaking contributions to the field of dance by DTH founder Arthur Mitchell. Sponsored by the university’s Columbia College Student Council, “An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance” also commemorated the donation of Mr. Mitchell’s archives to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Mitchell, he is a proud son of Harlem, NY. He was the first African-American male ballet dancer and the first African-American principal dancer with a major ballet company—the New York City Ballet (NYCB). Even more important, Mr. Mitchell is a self-described political activist, who “takes a knee” through dance. In 1968, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he decided to establish a dance school, beginning with 30 children in a Harlem church basement. The following year, at the peak of his own professional career, he founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a classical ballet company featuring African-American dancers, which challenged the dance world’s stereotypes and racial boundaries. Under his artistic direction, DTH would soon evolve into a globally-acclaimed, dance institution, presenting African-American and other racially diverse artists. It is renowned for its demanding repertory and the highest level of quality performances.
Mr. Mitchell told the New York Times in 2015 that he donated his archives to Columbia to “pave the way” for a better relationship between the community of Harlem and the university. The archives span his more than 50-year career as a dancer, choreographer, artistic director, social justice fighter and cultural icon. Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery also will feature an exhibit about Mr. Mitchell, from January 13 through March 11, 2018.
Mr. Mitchell was introduced at the Columbia event by his long-time friend and fellow Harlem native Cicely Tyson, who is also a Tony and Emmy award-winning actress, and a former DTH board member. Ms. Tyson talked about their 50-year friendship; Mr. Mitchell’s hard work, and his exacting standards of excellence. Mr. Mitchell then introduced an ensemble of professional dancers whom he directed in a program that reflected his lifelong commitment to brilliance, breaking barriers and diversity.
As Mr. Mitchell talked, I fondly remembered the many hours, days and weeks we spent working together, especially when I served as his First Assistant. This job required that I tour around the world with him and the company. It was a privilege to witness and experience a master and genius at work. Mr. Mitchell’s connection to his craft and to the dancers was like an invisible umbilical cord that literally fed the dancers what they needed to excel. Sometimes he didn’t say a word—he just looked at the dancers, transmitting energy, providing corrections, and communicating direction. I then saw the dancers silently and mystically shift into the light, move to center stage, or correct the placement of their feet. It was unbelievable! During the rare times a dancer was injured onstage, before allowing a doctor or therapist to administer first aid they insisted Mr. Mitchell place his hands on them first. The connection he shared with the dancers was the personification of total trust, unconditional love and complete dedication to the craft.
During Mr. Mitchell’s introduction to each of the program’s dances, he shared a bit of information about the dancer and why he selected that person to perform. He expressed pride in introducing Brooklyn Mack, a marvelous dancer with The Washington Ballet. I think Mr. Mitchell saw a bit of himself in the pas de deux section of Agon. NYCB founder George Balanchine choreographed that section of the dance in 1957 specifically for Mr. Mitchell and white ballerina Diana Adams (see a YouTube video of that performance here).
Mr. Mitchell broke through so many barriers. He was deliberate, especially when it came to exhibiting pride in his heritage and the integrity of his art. I know, given the state of racial relations during the early days of his career and DTH, that must have been a lonely and challenging journey. But Mr. Mitchell never wavered. He wore his craft like a cloak—the cloak of a cultural warrior forging new territory. Among his many contributions to the field of dance was the push for and use of tights dyed the color of the dancers’ skin, which extended the line of their bodies. Mr. Mitchell received numerous national and international awards; a MacArthur Fellowship; honorary doctorates (including from Columbia and Julliard), as well as Kennedy Center honors. In addition, Mr. Mitchell was honored at the White House by then-President George W. Bush and his wife Laura.
During the Q&A session, Mr. Mitchell told the young dancers to always leave something behind; to make a mark or leave a footprint. He said, “When you have technique and beauty, you must share it.” Mr. Mitchell also said: “Take the art off the shelf and make it accessible so everyone can enjoy it.” That’s one of the significant contributions he made to the world of dance—he made ballet accessible to all people, all over the world. After being promoted to the position of DTH’s Marketing Director, I had the good fortune to witness that firsthand. My responsibility was to translate Mr. Mitchell’s vision and mission into outreach programs that engaged global audiences and built bridges to African-American audiences here in the United States. I am forever grateful for the pioneering, audience development efforts I was able to cultivate during my tenure at DTH.
As I sat there in Columbia’s Miller Theatre surrounded by Mr. Mitchell’s friends, adoring fans, DTH alumni, and former staff, I felt the shared adoration and admiration for him. It was great to see many of the dancers and staff with whom I worked, and I relished the memories. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Mr. Mitchell, and it daily fills my heart with appreciation and empowers me to continue pushing through boundaries and breaking through barriers.
At the end of the program, Mr. Mitchell jokingly said, “I am 83 years-old; just had a hip replacement, and if I get my kidney together, I have another 25 years.” I hope so, Arthur Mitchell; I really hope you do. The world needs you!