Remembering Dancer And Choreographer Arthur Mitchell

Sep 20, 2018
Originally published on September 20, 2018 7:29 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell has died.

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ARTHUR MITCHELL: I was the first black classical dancer with a major company in the United States of America.

INSKEEP: That was Mitchell speaking with NPR in 2000. The major dance company that he's referring to is the New York City Ballet. And later, Mitchell went on to found his own company. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Arthur Mitchell was, as he liked to say, just a kid from Harlem who stepped into one of the most rarefied art forms. He moved with the grace and tensile strength that is the hallmark of great ballet dancers. But as he told NPR two decades ago, he was working against a noxious stereotype when the New York City Ballet invited him to dance his first season with them.

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MITCHELL: I joined them in November of 1955. And there was a myth at that time that blacks could not do classical ballet.

GRIGSBY BATES: Mitchell killed that myth. He danced incredibly complicated modern ballet like "Agon" as well as "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He stayed with the City Ballet for 15 years and left after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He wanted to make a contribution. So in 1969, he co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Virginia Johnson was long a principal dancer with the Dance Theatre's professional company and is now its artistic director.

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem for a lot of reasons. One of them was to give people the opportunity to see this art form - classical ballet - in a new way.

GRIGSBY BATES: He famously transformed the romantic ballet "Giselle" from Europe to Creole Louisiana, where the ghost of a peasant girl who falls in love with a roguish nobleman haunts a country grave - classic form, new way. Kay Mazzo became one of Mitchell's students when she was 13 and would go on to dance with him at the City Ballet as a young woman. Now the head of faculty at the School of American Ballet, Mazzo says Mitchell wanted to change the face of ballet - literally.

KAY MAZZO: Arthur was determined to make sure that the ballet world, which is a small world to begin with, was going to get bigger, with more diverse people.

GRIGSBY BATES: To that end, Mazzo says, Mitchell would help any school or company that asked to find a diverse assortment of young dancers from around the country. That insistence to train and place qualified dancers of color in one of the arts' least diverse genres is one of Arthur Mitchell's most important legacies, and it will live on in his Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, INCIDENTAL MUSIC, OP. 61: NO. 7, NOCTURNE. CON MOTO TRANQUILLO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.