Arthur Mitchell courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Legendary Ballet Dancer | Arts Ambassador | Passionate Educator | Visionary | ARTHUR MITCHELL
This article is provided courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arthur Adam Mitchell, pioneer and cultural icon, was internationally known as a critically acclaimed dancer, artistic director, choreographer, educator, activist and dance visionary. Throughout his life, he remained dedicated to increasing diversity in the classical arts and provided countless opportunities and support for talented young people to thrive and succeed.
Born on March 27th, 1934, Arthur Mitchell was born in Harlem, New York to Willie Mae (Hearns) and Arthur Mitchell, Sr. He became the eldest of his four siblings when his sister Francis passed away at a young age. At the age of twelve he began to provide for his family, working as a delivery boy, shining shoes, and collecting garbage in the building where his father was the superintendent. Yet Mr. Mitchell was always a performer. He sang in the choirs of Convent Avenue Baptist Church and the Police Athletic League, as well as took tap lessons at the area schools. While at a school party, a guidance counselor noticed his talent and suggested that he audition for the High School of the Performing Arts where he ultimately attended and excelled.
At the age of eighteen, Mr. Mitchell accepted a scholarship to study ballet at the School of American Ballet – turning down a modern dance scholarship at Bennington College. In 1955, Mr. Mitchell broke the glass ceiling of classical ballet by becoming the first African American principal dancer of The New York City Ballet under the direction of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, where he remained for fifteen years. He is best known for two roles choreographed especially for him by his mentor George Balanchine, the pas de deux in Agon, and the light-hearted “Puck” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Throughout the 1950s and 60s Mr. Mitchell also performed in a number of Broadway productions, but could not perform on commercial television in the United States until 1968, when one of his performances aired on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
Inspired by the changes sweeping America during the Civil Rights movement, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his own determination to provide young people in the Harlem community the opportunity to positively transform their lives, Mr. Mitchell co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) with his former teacher, Karel Shook, in 1969. Using $25,000 of his own money, the organization began as a school with thirty students and a company of two professional dancers. Quickly, the school’s enrollment grew to 400 students and the company would go on to hold its first performance at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971.
In 1981, DTH was the first black ballet company to perform at Covent Garden, London. The troupe also went to the Soviet Union for a five-week engagement in 1992. At the invitation of President Nelson Mandela, DTH was the first American performing arts company to visit South Africa, breaking the country’s 30-year cultural ban. During Mr. Mitchell’s tenure, DTH trained more than 30,000 dancers, held performances on every continent and was described in The New York Times as “one of the dance world’s more visionary experiments.”
To further his belief that dance could be used as a vehicle for social change, Mitchell founded the Arthur Mitchell Project (AMP). With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, AMP’s first initiative brought the Arthur Mitchell archive to the prestigious Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Columbia University and continues to develop companion programming and performances. In March 2016, Mitchell directed the performance of his choreography, Balm in Gilead, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to inaugurate the new MET Breuer museum. Always true to his roots, Mitchell continued to advocate for diversity in classical dance through lecture demonstrations, teaching, and symposia.
Mr. Mitchell was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom of Speech and Expression Medal from the Roosevelt Foundation in 2015. Mitchell was inducted into the Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance in 2000. He received the National Medal of Arts in 1995, and the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship in 1994. In 1993, Mr. Mitchell was elevated to “Living Landmark” status by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and became one of the youngest Kennedy Center Honors recipients that same year.
Mr. Mitchell was preceded in death by his parents, Willie Mae and Arthur Sr., and his five siblings, Frances, Laura Mae, Charles, Herbert, and his beloved baby sister Shirley. He is survived by his nieces, Sandra, Indra, Linda, Juli, Brenda, Lisa and Jaynette; his nephews Louis Jr. and Charles Jr., and first cousin Ella Wright; as well as legions of students, dancers, choreographers, musicians, designers, administrators, and a worldwide audience whose lives he changed immeasurably with the tenacity of his vision.
He carved a place for black dancers in classical ballet and forever changed the face of dance in America and around the world. The world has been made better by his presence, and his life and legacy remain as an inspiration to all.
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