In conjunction with celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and as we begin to move into Black History Month, I would like to take this as an opportunity to honor the great Arthur Mitchell and the acclaimed company, Dance Theatre of Harlem!
Born on March 27, 1934 in Harlem, NY, Mitchell began his dance training at the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. During his studies, he became the first male dancer to win the coveted Annual Dance Award and decided to pursue classical ballet professionally. Upon graduating high school, he received a full scholarship to continue his training at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the school affiliated with the notable New York City Ballet.
In 1955, Mitchell join the New York City Ballet, making him the first African-American male to become a permanent member of a major ballet company. He quickly rose to be a principal dancer, where he amazed audiences with his performance. Mitchell is most notable known for his roles in the pas de deux in Agon and the lighthearted Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both choreographed specifically for him by George Balanchine.
In addition to his roles with New York City Ballet, Mitchell also performed on Broadway, film, television, and in nightclubs. In 1966 he was asked to organized the American Negro Dance Company, which went on to represent the United States at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal, Africa and also founded the National Ballet Company of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
With the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and learning about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Mitchell was determined to create opportunities for the youth to have access to dance where he grew up in Harlem. He began teaching classes in a remodeled garage on West 152nd Street. In 1969, with the help and financial support from Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel and the Ford Foundation, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) with his mentor and ballet teacher Karel Shook. The company has gone on to break down barriers as it has challenged the dance world to recognize and amend its stereotypes that ballet is an exclusive art for and by those of Eurocentric backgrounds.
Check out this exclusive video of UNCC assistant dance professor Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin and her thoughts on Arthur Mitchell and DTH. (Courtesy of Cecilia Whalen and Charlotte Viewpoint):
The company went onto have great success. Starting from its debut performance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1971, DTH has toured nationally and internationally, selling out performances, created a training school, and developed educational outreach program.
As many nonprofit organizations, they have their financial ups and downs. However, in 2004, with the debt totally to $2.3 million, DTH shut down its professional company for what was anticipated to be for one year, became an eight year hiatus. Focus was shifted to the school and education initiatives.
Today, under the direction of founding member and former principal dancer Virginia Johnson, the company is back and thriving once again. This company of 14 racially diverse dance artists of different shades of brown, performs a mix of classical and neo-classical works, while using ballet as a means to celebrate the African-American culture and bring new life to classical ballet. The company is currently on tour and will have its New York season at the New York City Center April 6-9.
Check out the DTH touring calendar here to see when you can see this company at a city near you!