Arthur Mitchell, Ballet’s ‘Grandfather of Diversity’

Posted January 5, 2018 12:17 a.m. EST

NEW YORK — Arthur Mitchell has much to be proud of. But what does he consider his greatest accomplishment? Being a founder of Dance Theater of Harlem.

“That I actually bucked society,” he said, “and an art form that was three, four hundred years old, and brought black people into it.”

He paused for a moment and sat up a bit straighter in his chair at the Wallach Art Gallery, where he is the subject of an exhibition opening Jan. 13. “I am the grandfather of diversity,” he said, bursting out laughing.

At 83, Mitchell still exudes a grandness. Two hip replacements have left one leg 2 inches shorter than the other, but a limp and a cane have done little to diminish his fiery spirit and exacting mind.

Revered for his artistic accomplishments, Mitchell has been driven by the belief that dance can effect social change. Both aspects of his career are celebrated in “Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer,” at the Wallach gallery. The exhibition is a collaboration between the gallery and Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, to which Mitchell donated his archive in 2015.

Curated by Lynn Garafola, professor emerita of dance at Barnard College, the exhibition opens the archive to the public. Garafola said in an email that it would reveal “the fuller picture of Mitchell’s performing career,” in which Broadway and modern dance figured in as well as ballet, and convey “the special spirit and sense of mission that infused the Dance Theater of Harlem” under his leadership.

Mitchell was inspired to form Dance Theater after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But before that, Mitchell broke the color wall in ballet by becoming the first African-American principal dancer at New York City Ballet.

He joined the company in 1955. Two years later, George Balanchine, who founded City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein, made his modernist masterpiece “Agon,” which featured a pas de deux for Mitchell and Diana Adams.

“Can you imagine the audacity to take an African-American and Diana Adams, the essence and purity of Caucasian dance, and to put them together on the stage?” Mitchell said. “Everybody was against him. He knew what he was going against, and he said, ‘You know my dear, this has got to be perfect.'”

In conjunction with donating his archive, Mitchell hosted an evening at the Miller Theater at Columbia in October exploring his legacy. As part of it, Calvin Royal III, an African-American soloist at American Ballet Theater, performed the “Agon” pas de deux with Unity Phelan of City Ballet. The mention of Royal caused Mitchell’s face to light up. “Calvin!” he exclaimed with a clap of the hands. “If they ever did a film of a young me, it would be Calvin. He does everything, but there’s a poetry when he dances. I liked him very much in ‘Agon,’ and I think he will grow. There’s an innocence about him.”

But as for the exhibition, Mitchell said he was frustrated that there was not a sprung dance floor at Columbia’s new Lenfest Center of the Arts, which houses the Wallach gallery. The center has performance spaces — including one for theatrical productions — but Columbia’s School of the Arts does not have a dance department or offer an MFA in dance. And while Mitchell hosted a program at the Miller, he said he would have liked more dance at the site of his exhibition.

“They said: ‘No dance! No dance!'” Mitchell recalled. “I said: ‘But that’s what I am. That’s what I’m about.’ It’s like saying, ‘I want a painter, but nothing on the walls.'”

Some dancing, though, will be on view at the exhibition in two video loops that include a broadcast of “The Nutcracker” from CBS’ “Playhouse 90” in 1958. Mitchell dances the part of Coffee (Balanchine refashioned it as a female role in the 1960s) and partners Diana Adams, the Sugarplum Fairy, as one of four Cavaliers.

“Mr. Balanchine walked by me and said, ‘I hope Governor Faubus is watching,'” Mitchell said, referring to the Arkansas governor who was against the desegregation of the Little Rock School District in 1957. “So he knew what was going on in the country, and he was showing, in his way, how he felt about it.”

Mitchell, born in Harlem in 1934, didn’t start with ballet. He studied at New York’s High School of Performing Arts and danced with many modern choreographers, including Donald McKayle and Sophie Maslow, before and during the time he entered the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet in 1952. Garafola said the material Mitchell kept regarding his years before joining City Ballet “shows he really was a modern dancer before he became a ballet dancer.”

Even after joining City Ballet, Mitchell performed with other companies. “I always had two or three jobs on the side to make money,” he said. “I danced with John Butler, I did Broadway, I danced with Donny McKayle. The New Dance Group. Anyone that offered me a job, I would take because that had to support me.” Balanchine, he recalled, understood his financial situation, but urged him not to give up the classics. “He pounded that into me every day.”

Because of his closeness with the Russian-born Balanchine, Mitchell refers to himself as an African-American man raised like an old Russian aristocrat. “My relationship with him was totally different than with the other dancers,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t about, ‘What role am I going to dance?’ But ‘What would you like me to do? Use me.’ And he did.”

Mitchell said he recalled few incidents of racism at City Ballet, although there were a couple of dancers who made comments. “That’s when the Harlem came out,” he said. “I don’t want to hear the word black, chocolate, beige, ecru because I will do you in. Do you understand?” In one case, Lincoln Kirstein encouraged him to look the other way. “Lincoln said, ‘Oh, don’t worry Arthur, he’s crazy. I said, ‘But I’m going to knock him into sanity.'”

But mainly he felt supported by the company. “There were many people that said there shouldn’t be blacks in ballet, and Balanchine said, ‘Then take your daughter out of the company,'” Mitchell continued. “He always stood up for me.”

He feels less warmth toward Dance Theater, the company he formed with Karel Shook in 1969. In 2004, significant debt caused the company to go on hiatus; in 2009, it was announced that Virginia Johnson, a founding member of the company, would take over as artistic director of a revived company, which made its New York debut in 2013. The company is substantially smaller, and Mitchell has kept his distance since his departure.

Yet his legacy is larger than Dance Theater of Harlem. Mitchell played an important role in the story of race and art in America, and he’s gratified that issues surrounding race are so out in the open today.

“That’s what change is about,” he said. “If you don’t discuss it, nothing happens. So who’s going to be brave enough to go against the tide? I am. Now that’s going to be part of my legacy, and there will hopefully be some young person who will say: ‘I like what Mitchell did. I’m going to follow my path. I’m going to do what I believe and get the skill and the training that history has and then add to it.'”