Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer

Arthur Mitchell, Artist Extraordinaire > "Dancing on Balanchine's Stages," Nancy Reynolds




 Nancy Reynolds

“Whenever I danced, I danced for my mom and my people”[1]  — Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell was a wonderful dancer—sleek, smooth, vivacious, powerful.  He was also a black man, who “made it” in a profession— classical ballet—that was glaringly white.  But he would not have made history the way he did without the support of George Balanchine, Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, and Lincoln Kirstein, the company’s General Director.  Balanchine had a long history of working with black dancers on Broadway (Ziegfeld Follies 1936; Babes in Arms; House of Flowers; he was close friends with (among others) Katherine Dunham and Josephine Baker.  He had also choreographed roles for white dancers who appeared in blackface, notably in The Triumph of Neptune (as Snowball, a role he danced) and Jack in the Box, both for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the “Blackamoors’ Dance” in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production of The Night Shadow.  Kirstein, long known to be sympathetic to blacks, had written Lay this Laurel, a book about the first black volunteer regiment in the Civil War.  In 1965 he was in Alabama during the civil rights marches.   As far back as 1933, before Balanchine had settled in America, the two had envisioned creating a ballet school and company that was half black and half white.

Arthur Adams Mitchell, Jr., was born March 27, 1934, in New York City, the second of six children.  (Although 14 years separated him from his older sister, who died from the effects of diabetes early on, the rest of the family was completed within the next four years.)   They lived in Harlem, a predominantly black area of northern Manhattan.  By the time Mitchell was twelve, his father was no longer at home—so “I was the father” as well as the family breadwinner, he remembered.  In grade school a guidance counselor noticed his physical agility and encouraged him to audition for the High School of Performing Arts, where, performing a tap dance routine learned from an old vaudevillian, he was accepted despite lack of formal training—“maybe not so much on talent but because they needed boys,” he later quipped.[2]  One of the adjudicators was none other than Lincoln Kirstein, the General Director of the New York City Ballet and an HSPA board member.  At Performing Arts  Mitchell studied tap, modern, ethnic, and jazz, but showed little interest in ballet.  (He graduated with a certificate in modern dance.)  Kirstein was again in the audience when Mitchell performed a composition of his own, the required senior solo.  On the basis of his Wail, to Bartók, Kirstein (anonymously) arranged for a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where Mitchell began a serious study of ballet, turning down a scholarship offer to Bennington College to do so.  (At the time SAB—and indeed the entire professional world of ballet—was virtually all-white.)  Despite his late start in ballet, within just three years Mitchell was invited to join the New York City Ballet (NYCB).

After graduating, Mitchell made the rounds of auditions, landing a corps slot in the revival of Four Saints in Three Acts and two years later in the musical House of Flowers, starring Pearl Bailey, where he first worked with Balanchine, whom he had occasionally spotted watching class at SAB. Among other engagements, he also performed with the John Butler American Dance Theatre, a racially integrated contemporary dance troupe, touring in the United States and Europe.  On August 24, 1955, while with Butler’s company in the Netherlands, Mitchell received a telegram from Kirstein offering him a full-time corps de ballet position with NYCB. After some deliberation, Mitchell cast his lot with ballet over modern dance and said “yes” to the invitation.

In listing new members of NYCB for the fall-winter season of 1955-56, no mention was made of Mitchell’s race, and he was cast in corps de ballet parts like every other newcomer.  (He was a Monster in Firebird, a trumpet in Jerome Robbins’s Fanfare,  a Hunter in Swan Lake,  a Drinking Companion in Prodigal Son, a Truck Driver in Lew Christensen’s Filling Station, an Attendant in Todd Bolender’s Souvenirs, and so forth.)  The very first night of the season (November 8, 1955), however, he made an unexpected debut in a principal role, replacing Jacques d’Amboise as lead male dancer in the fourth movement of Western Symphony opposite principal dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq.  As Mitchell remembers the experience, “[The first time I appeared as part of Balanchine’s company, there was some bald guy] sitting right behind the conductor.  And he said, ‘By god, they’ve got a nigger in the company!’[3]  And the [audience] went crazy–shouting and screaming, like when Stravinsky did Le Sacre du Printemps.  Can you imagine, in this all-white company at City Center, here I come out in a leading role dancing with Balanchine’s wife.”[4]  Underlining the “substitute” nature of his appearance, he did not reprise the role for another year, this time dancing with principal dancer Diana Adams.  Thereafter, it could fairly be said that he and d’Amboise shared the role.  Later Mitchell was to say, “No one realizes what Balanchine and Kirstein went through to take—in front of the entire world—a black kid and put him in their company and have him dance with all their ballerinas.  That is chutzpah.”[5]  Joining the NYCB in 1955, Mitchell danced with the company for the next sixteen years.

After performing opposite Le Clercq in Robbins’s Pied Piper in his first month in the company (and later with principal Janet Reed), by 1956 Mitchell was beginning to dance more soloist parts, notably in Robbins’s Interplay, which was well suited to his “jazzy” style, jumping ability, and sense of fun.  His repertory in corps or demi-solo parts increased substantially.  He was now appearing in Bourrée Fantasque (first movement corps; later first and third movement leads), La Valse (corps),  Allegro Brillante (corps), Symphony in C (third movement demi-solo, later fourth movement lead), Western Symphony (corps, later third movement demi-solo, first movement lead), Jerome Robbins’s The Concert  (corps).  The men’s parts in almost all of these roles could be described as demi-caractère or demi-classical, with choreography often infused with elements of jazz, tap, or modern dance.  This turned out to be Mitchell’s specialty.

In the fall of 1956 NYCB embarked on its fifth tour of Europe, with engagements in Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Only eight years old, the company was becoming recognized as one of the top ballet troupes in the world, having been “legitimized” artistically by acclaim in European capitals with ballet troupes of much longer lineage as well as by the fact that Balanchine was coming to be regarded as perhaps the preeminent ballet choreographer of the twentieth century.  During the tour Le Clercq was struck down by polio, which left both her legs and her right forearm permanently paralyzed.  The company was deeply affected, not only by Le Clercq’s personal tragedy (which was all the more tragic in that she was in her prime as a dancer) but because Balanchine, then her husband, ever hopeful of her recovery, remained by her side in Copenhagen for the better part of a year.

Early in 1957, Mitchell assumed the solo role of Coffee, set to Tchaikovsky’s “Danse Arabe” in Balanchine’s lavish Nutcracker, a role originated by Francisco Monción.  This was a sinuous dance involving a hookah, a carpet, and four tiny children as birds.  Mitchell’s costume had him stripped to the waist; if it ever had been, his race was no longer a secret.  Another significant repertory addition for Mitchell was The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore, with choreography by John Butler and music and libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti.  Described in the program as a madrigal-fable, the tale of a disillusioned Poet, and strikingly costumed by Robert Fletcher, the work had a mixed reception in New York but was enthusiastically received on tour in Chicago. Mitchell as the Unicorn (representing Youth), although masked along with many of the other characters, appeared bare-chested. In one of the first reviews in which he was singled out by name, Ann Barzel, noted critic of the Chicago dance scene, wrote that he had “danced magnificently.”[6]

In the fall of 1957, back home in New York, Balanchine began work on an astounding four new ballets to be premiered over the course of the winter season—Agon, Square Dance, Stars and Stripes, and Gounod Symphony.  With the exception of Gounod, sixty years later the other ballets are still in repertory—now evergreens and widely performed around the world.

To the surprise of nearly everyone, Agon, a spare work for twelve dancers to a partially twelve-tone score by Stravinsky, was a huge success. It catapulted Mitchell, in an erotic pas de deux with Diana Adams, to public notice.  (He was still listed in the corps de ballet at the time.) Of the largely contrapuntal texture of his music, Stravinsky noted that “the mechanics must be adjusted like that of the modern car,” while Balanchine described the music as “hard on the ear” and referred to the “IBM ballet” as “more tight and precise than usual, as though controlled by an electronic brain.”[7]  Balanchine said that the pas de deux took him longer to choreograph than anything he had ever done “because,” as Mitchell said, quoting Balanchine, “everything has to be exactly right.”  In recognition of this idea critic Edwin Denby wrote, “[There is] not a split second leeway. The dangerousness of Agon is as tense as the danger of a tightrope act on the high wire.”[8]  John Martin, the influential dance critic of the New York Times, considered that “it [Agon] may well be the highest point we have yet reached in manipulating the living anatomy of choreography.”[9]  Critic Nancy Goldner wrote of  the ballet’s “perilous paths and safe landings.”[10]  Commenting on the choreography, Mitchell said, “The pas de deux is like living sculpture.  Before your eyes the dancers move from one fantastic pose to another, but you don’t know how they got there.”[11]

When asked further about the groundbreaking choreography, which was puzzling to some in the audience, Mitchell replied, “It wasn’t strange to do that style.  My whole background was totally different from most ballet dancers.  I did nightclub jazz.  I was a modern dancer who was going into ballet.  So moving in those kinds of contractions and falls, off balance—things like that were very natural.  Not natural, but I was at home, very at ease with that whole thing.”[12]  Moreover, in decoding Stravinsky’s difficult music, Mitchell revealingly said, “Because I could tap dance, I could find the pulse.  Balanchine was a musician—he was working from the music.  He would stamp out the rhythm [before creating the choreography, and a dancer might ask], ‘Mr. B, what’s the step?’ ‘I don’t know because I haven’t done it yet!’” was the reply.[13]  Mitchell’s musical instincts (“finding the pulse”) aarlemHHHcame in very handy in analyzing music by Stravinsky and later, Webern, and was much appreciated by the musician in Balanchine, for whom rhythm provided the organizing principal for many a musical composition.  Blessed with a keen sense of rhythm, Mitchell was also a very fast learner, an invaluable skill in any performing art, and was often called upon to learn roles at the very last minute and then perform them a few hours later. 

With all its complexities of music and choreography, and the brilliant way their parts are interlocked, a major element in making Agon so “explosive” was the fact of a black man (Mitchell) partnering a white woman (Adams), lifting her, guiding her, supporting her even while lying on the floor, while she, on a single pointe, loomed above him, or while, raised in the air, she displayed her crotch to the audience.  “What was controversial,” said Mitchell, “was to take a black man and Diana, who was very patrician, with white skin, long legs, and dark hair, and put us together in this very intricate pas de deux that involves serious partnering.  The whole secret is that Diana ha[d] to let me do everything . . . she [couldn’t] do anything by herself.  That’s one of the first secrets of partnering that Balanchine taught me.”[14]  “The one thing [he] kept saying was, ‘the girl is like a doll, you’re manipulating her, you must lead her.  It’s one long, long, long, long breath.’”[15]  “And he used our skin tones as part of the choreography.  He would [place] my arm to make sure that the white was on the bottom or vice-versa and also [contrast] the masculine way I dance[d] with her femininity.  Diana was like a high-strung thoroughbred, very nervous.  I used to calm her, as I calm all my partners.  I would say, ‘You look beautiful tonight.  I’m going to show you off to everybody here.’”[16]

In 1957, the struggle for civil rights was very much in the news, and Balanchine (and Mitchell of course) were well aware of this.  As Melissa Hayden, who led Agon’s second pas de trois, put it, “[the first time you saw Arthur and Diana doing the pas de deux], it was really awesome to see a black hand touch a white skin.  That’s where we were coming from in the fifties.”[17]  And Barbara Milberg, a soloist in the ballet’s first pas de trois, put it succinctly: “In the one arena where [Balanchine] had complete control, at the theater where an audience gathered to take part in a dramatic action, he publicly cut through the twisted knot of race relations.  Arthur had definitely arrived.”[18]  A short time after the Agon premiere, in 1958 for national television (CBS-Playhouse 90), Balanchine rechoreographed the Nutcracker grand pas de deux for the ballerina and four cavaliers, one of whom was Mitchell as Coffee.  Balanchine arranged for him to “win” the (lily-white) Sugar Plum Fairy in the end.  “I hope Governor Faubus is watching,” he was overheard to remark. This seems to have been the first and last time Mitchell partnered a white ballerina on American network television until the late 1960s.

Kirstein, the polymath, described Agon as seen through a different lens: "Costumes are black-and-white uniforms, near nudity.  ‘Production’ consists of execution alone. . . . No dance work has been more highly organized or is so dense in movement in its bare twenty minutes. . . . there is more concentrated movement in Agon than in most nineteenth-century full-length ballets. . . . Group numbers assume the well-oiled synchronism of electrical timekeepers [as] blocks of units in triads and quartets shift like chess pieces; dancers are manipulated as irreplaceable spare parts, substituting or alternating on strict beats. . . . Impersonalization of arms and legs into geometrical arrows . . . accentuates dynamics in a field of force.  Yet the aura is not mechanistic, but musical, disciplined, witty—offering the epoch’s extreme statement of its craft.  At a time when experiment had become a necessity for instant novelty, the innovation of Agon lay in its naked strength, bare authority, and self-discipline, in constructs of stressed extreme movement.  Behind its active physical presence there was inherent a philosophy; Agon was by no means ‘pure’ ballet, ’about’ dancing only.  It was an existential metaphor for tension and anxiety."[19]

A work of such many-layered richness as Agon was of course open to many interpretations.  Mitchell half joked that some viewers saw it as a man manipulating a woman, while others found it a portrait of a white dominatrix and a slave.  Mitchell said that none of that had crossed his mind.  No doubt he was concentrating on the dancing.[20]  As for Balanchine, in 1968 he was quoted as saying, “‘[Agon] is his [Stravinsky’s]—it is our—most perfect work, representing a total collaboration between musician and choreographer.’”[21]

After his breakthrough role in this milestone ballet Mitchell increasingly received important parts.  In 1958, on a long tour of Japan and Australia, he was cast in the iconic role of “Phlegmatic” in The Four Temperaments, choreographed by Balanchine in 1946.  With its angular gestures and non-balletic poses, the ballet has often been considered a precursor to or relative of Agon.  However, The Four Temperaments is a mood piece, with an air of mystery quite antithetical to the extreme clarity and decisiveness of Agon.  The role’s originator, Todd Bolender, like Mitchell, had early training in modern dance.  Bolender was also extremely flexible, and both qualities were reflected in some of Balanchine’s movement choices.  For Mitchell, “Several things were going on at once.  The actual steps were just kind of like a tricky tap dance.  Throughout ‘Phlegmatic,’ you had to keep the rhythm thing going with your feet, while the body is supposed to be loose, boneless.  Sometimes when you start accenting, the body becomes jerky.  To get the accents with the feet and fluidity in the body—that was the challenge.”[22]  An unnamed Australian critic wrote, “one has waited for the opportunity to grant Arthur Mitchell his due praise.  In The Four Temperaments he revealed himself as a dancer from the tips of his hands to the tips of his feet.  He is never static.  He dances as no one else, with a native aptitude for rhythm and with always a beautiful classical expression.”[23]  “Phlegmatic” is a treasured role; Mitchell remembers it as one of his most exciting, and there are numerous photographs of him dancing it. Throughout its long history at New York City Ballet it has been entrusted to very few dancers.  Mitchell performed the role for many years with NYCB.  Critic Harriet Johnson, remarking on the “hypnotically beautiful Hindemith music,” praised his “quiet intensity” in the role.[24]

Also on the tour, Mitchell debuted  in leading roles in the frothy Bourrée Fantasque (third movement) and in the extroverted pas de deux in Balanchine’s celebration of America, Stars and Stripes.  This is a number that requires panache in presentation, strong technique, and skilled partnering, as befits a role created originally on Jacques d’Amboise.  It fit Mitchell as well, and he was to dance it over the years with a variety of partners.

Back in New York, for the 1958-59 winter season, Mitchell was listed as soloist with NYCB for the first time. During the year, in addition to appearing in the Stars and Stripes pas de deux and the first movement lead in Western Symphony (new for him), he acquired another new role, that of Jason in the Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg’s Medea, in which he danced his first dramatic part.  In this role too he followed d’Amboise.  Ordinarily rather light on his feet, Mitchell had to add weight and urgency to his movements when he danced the part, and of course his usual infectious smile had to disappear.

The ballet was well received, and the New York Times’ John Martin was especially enthusiastic, calling it “a powerful, succinct, extraordinarily direct retelling of the Greek legend, translated into straight narrative form.  There is not a superfluous phrase, a meaningless gesture, an item of mere decoration in the choreography from end to end, for Cullberg is of a dramatic mind and bent on driving her theme to its inevitable conclusion.”[25] The ballet was a departure from most other ballets in the NYCB repertory and had the advantage of providing—in Medea, Jason, and Creusa (the seductress)—three meaty leading roles.  Medea, especially as realized by the fiery Melissa Hayden, was without question first among equals.  Mitchell danced opposite Violette Verdy, a French ballerina new to the company, in the title role.

Of course not all new ballets presented by NYCB were successes.  Starting off the new decade, premiering January 20, 1960, was Panamerica, a tribute to Latin America.  A full-evening ballet in eight sections by five different choreographers, the ballet received mostly negative reviews that cited the aridity of both idea and choreographic inspiration; most sections were withdrawn after one season.  Mitchell danced in Ocho por Radio (Mexico), to music of Silvestre Revueltas, with choreography by Gloria Contreras, and Danzas Sinfónicas  (Cuba), with music by Julián Orbón and choreography by Balanchine.  The only section performed for more than a season or two was Variaciones Concertantes  (Argentina), with music by Alberto Ginastera and choreography by John Taras, which, retitled Tender Night, lasted a few seasons.

In a similar category was Modern Jazz: Variants (premiere January 4, 1961), despite the presence of live music on stage by the Modern Jazz Quartet and the guest appearance of John Jones, a black dancer recommended by Mitchell at Balanchine’s request.  However, it was felt that Balanchine’s jazz-derived movements were among his least inventive, and the ballet did not last long.  Balanchine had wanted a corps de ballet of six black women for the ballet, but Mitchell told him that was not possible.  Not enough black women excelled in ballet at the professional level at that time, partly due to the expense of training and partly because there were virtually no positions for black women in ballet companies, with the result that they pursued other types of dance.[26]

However, Mitchell was able to suggest one beautifully schooled black dancer for Balanchine’s lavish Figure in the Carpet, to music of Handel (premiere April 13, 1960), with stunning costumes and décor by Esteban Francés.  Set in a mythical court (loosely modeled after that of Louis XIV) and preceded by sections devoted to an evocation of the desert and the weaving of a Persian carpet, the final scene represented a parade of “ambassadors” from around the world.  In the divertissement entitled “Africa: The Oni of Ife and His Consort,” Mitchell was joined by Mary Hinkson of the Martha Graham company, a frequent partner of his outside NYCB.   Their lively duet featured big jumps and catches, described by Mitchell as “crisp and speedy.”  He noted that Balanchine “loved” Hinkson and admired the “dare-devilment of [her] flying.”[27]  Despite its many real delights, the ballet was felt to be overstuffed.  It was retired after a few seasons.

Also in 1960, a quartet of works was presented under the title Jazz Concert, and Mitchell, unsurprisingly, had roles in two of them.  In The Creation of the World (music: Darius Milhaud) choreographer Todd Bolender, tongue in check, covered civilization’s passing parade from Adam and Eve to the stock market crash of 1929.  Mitchell was cast as the villain Snake, who leads Peaches, the twentieth-century heroine, to ruin.  In the New York Times John Martin wrote, “[Although] Bolender reminiscences freely over the works of Balanchine and Robbins in the repertory, he manages at the same time to come up with some original bits of comedy, and he has used his people well.”[28]  In Ebony Concerto, to a complex Stravinsky score, Mitchell was paired with the youthful ballerina-to-be Patricia McBride.  The English critic P.W. Manchester called it “slick in the best traditions of the Broadway musical” and noted that “the [blues] slow movement is tender and has great charm.”[29]  An effective device by the choreographer John Taras was to call for the first movement to be lit in silhouette.  The ballet was revived for the New York City Ballet’s Stravinsky Festival in 1972, but without Mitchell.

Also in 1960 Mitchell began performing the fourth movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C (choreographed in 1948), partnering Jillana.  He credits this experience with teaching him the most about classical partnering in the Balanchine style. "Balanchine said to think of social dancing to remind you to use your fingers to guide the ballerina and to hold [the woman’s hand] not with a loose wrist but with one or two [firm] fingers.  I tell the woman never to grab me.  If she needs support I can give it, but if she’s clutching so that there’s something tense, something’s wrong [and it’s hard to maneuver]. . . . The jazz, the moving through the hip in Symphony in C, made me understand the breaking down of the movement so that I was off center rather than being on center.  Even when you are off center you are still centered; you can do a tilt but you’re still centered.  If you take a triangle and tip it on its side it’s still a triangle; the center stays there.  That’s what was so exciting about dancing with NYCB. I like living on the edge, and to be able to dance on the edge—it’s a sense of joy—that’s the whole purpose of it."[30]

As a superior partner, Mitchell was cast opposite some of Balanchine’s most established ballerinas in addition to Adams:  Allegra Kent in Agon, Violette Verdy in Stars and Stripes, Maria Tallchief in Piège de Lumière (choreography by John Taras), Suzanne Farrell in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and Mimi Paul in Bugaku, as well as important soloists such as Gloria Govrin in Western Symphony and Episodes and Patricia Neary in Ivesiana.  The growing breadth of his repertory and roster of his partnerships confirmed his legitimacy within the country’s preeminent ballet troupe.

The revival of Balanchine’s Ivesiana, to the “queerly magnificent” (Edwin Denby), highly idiosyncratic music of Charles Ives, brought back to the repertory a work that was distinctly odd.  Mitchell was paired with Diana Adams in a section called “In the Inn.”  Of this Denby wrote, “To a jazz that is small, sour, and meticulously insane . . . a young couple—with an intoxicated abandon and a miraculous rhythmic edge—invent a dizzy fluctuation of tango, maxixe, Charleston and mambo steps. . . . They approach a rough climax, but stop, shake hands, and leave each other.”[31] A rare visual record of the choreography, as danced in 1964 by Mitchell and Patricia Neary on Montreal’s L’Heure du Concert, can be found on YouTube.

After Agon in 1957, with its great pas de deux, the second most memorable role Balanchine choreographed on Mitchell was that of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (premiered January 17, 1962).  When advance word got out that Balanchine would be choreographing Midsummer, many assumed that the role of Puck would go to Edward Villella, who was rather small in stature and extremely fast on his feet.  But Balanchine surprised everyone by casting Villella as Oberon (and giving him a fiendishly difficult variation highlighting his superlative jumps and beats).  With Puck it was just the opposite; Mitchell remembers being perplexed in rehearsals because Balanchine gave him few steps as such, mostly indicating Puck’s entrances and exits and giving a general idea of what mischief he was supposed to be up to.  He left it largely to Mitchell to figure out how to realize these things theatrically; Mitchell managed it by being all over the stage almost all of the time.  Where did he come from and how did he get there so fast?  For Mitchell, in the absence of set steps, Puck was more of an acting or mime role.[32]

Balanchine said that despite Puck’s antics the role was not an overtly comic, one, because there were already enough amusing characters in the play—the Mechanicals, the lovers—so a sense of fun was built in.  (After Mitchell’s time, Puck came to be played more and more broadly, becoming almost slapstick in some interpretations.) But Mitchell, as he skimmed across the stage, dancing nearly nude, his body sprinkled with glitter, was remembered as a “mercurial creature” by the New Yorker critic Arlene Croce.[33]  The entire concept of the quicksilver Puck was pronounced a master stroke.  Mitchell, every step and movement underlining his fleetness and agility, had the role of his career.  “Mitchell has given us an unforgettable characterization, mischievous, antic, lovable and, in movement matters, muscularly thrilling,” wrote Walter Terry, dance critic of the New York Herald Tribune.[34]  Or, as Doris Hering put it in Dance Magazine, “We knew it all the time. Balanchine is really Puck.”[35]

During the spring of 1962, Mitchell performed the “Ricercata” from Episodes, appearing with Gloria Govrin.  A few weeks later he made his debut as the Dark Angel in a revival of Orpheus with Edward Villella in the title role.  Soon afterward, at a celebration of Stravinsky’s eightieth birthday in Hamburg (with the composer conducting), he again performed the Dark Angel as well as Agon with Allegra Kent, whom he frequently partnered in the ballet.  In September Mitchell’s name was listed on the company roster as principal dancer, the first African American to achieve that rank in NYCB.  There would not be a second one for more than thirty years, when Albert Evans was named principal in 1995.

Mitchell was widely admired inside the company, not only for his dance ability and courage as a black man in a time of festering race relations, but also because he seemed to have a uniquely direct line to Balanchine’s ear. “I used to sit with him and talk,” he said.  “I took him to jazz clubs in Harlem and introduced him to soul food.  And he loved tap dancing.   All these things [were] manifested in a trust between us.”[36]  This trust was particularly valuable during NYCB’s first tour to the Soviet Union, where the company opened in Moscow on October 9, 1962.  It was also Balanchine’s first trip to his homeland since leaving in 1924. 

Mitchell recalled that "everyone was very, very nervous because there was a rumor going around that if people who had left came back they would be put in jail.  Mr. B, although not a depressive person, was very internal, so everyone said ‘Arthur, go sit beside him because he likes you and you make him laugh.’  So he was telling me how beautiful everything had been when he was a child.  I could see that he was nervous–not nervous like frightened, but very introspective. It was sad for him.  On a bus trip in St. Petersburg [then Leningrad], he spotted the house where Eugenia Ouroussow [former director of the School of American Ballet] was raised.  But by then there were five or six families living there.  We were concerned because we knew he was under a great deal of pressure. You could see it wearing on him.  He actually left the tour for a few days. Particularly for me, dancing there was exciting, because they had never seen a black man dancing ballet; When I came on in Agon, you could hear rustling around the theater. It was exhilarating but nerve-wracking, like being under a microscope. The response from the audiences was tremendous. There was a lot of their rhythmic clapping."[37]  Mitchell and Kent (she in La Sonnambula as well as Agon) had great personal success on the tour.

In 1963, at the summer Ravinia Festival in Illinois, Mitchell and Mimi Paul, alternating with the originals Allegra Kent and Edward Villella, performed Balanchine’s ritualistic and highly erotic Japanese-inspired fantasy, Bugaku.  The ritual was interpreted by some as a wedding night.  The sexual encounter, although highly stylized, was explicit.  Mitchell remembered Balanchine telling him to keep his movement low and heavy.  “I thought of a samurai warrior and tried to use my body like a wrestler,” he said.  “Balanchine spoke of the woman’s movements as a blossom unfolding.  The question came up about my color.  During the war there were many black soldiers around, and out of this came many half-black, half-oriental children.  I said to him, ‘Well, I’m a war baby!’  Mr. B. had a tremendous sense of humor, at least when we were alone.”[38]  The ballet’s movements, deriving, as ever, from a balletic base, were accented so as to underline the man’s groundedness and the woman’s delicacy.

Mitchell’s new roles in the spacious New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, which opened in the spring of 1964, were generally of less stature than some of his earlier ones.  None of the new Balanchine ballets in which Mitchell had a role were among his strongest.  His Clarinade, to a jazz score by Morton Gould and the first new work premiered in the new theater, was a minor effort and soon disappeared from the repertory, despite the casting of Mitchell, Gloria Govrin, a teenaged Suzanne Farrell, and Anthony Blum as leads.

A more substantial piece, Piège de Lumière, to music by Jean-Michel Damase, wasa 1964 revival of a work premiered in Paris in 1952.  Its choreographer, John Taras (who would later choreograph Dance Theatre of Harlem’s popular Firebird), had created a ballet in the French grand manner, with an elaborate literary pretext and ultra-chic costumes and setting.  It was especially strong in male roles.  Mitchell danced the principal role of the Young Convict.  He remembered “some very tricky lifts onto one shoulder and throws.  I was very nervous dancing with Maria Tallchief for the first time.  Dramatically my part was very meaty, very enjoyable.  John was exact about technical things; dramatically he let me develop my own interpretation.”[39]  The ballet was performed for several seasons.

In Balanchine’s ambitious three-act Don Quixote, to commissioned music by Nicolas Nabokov, the Don was a non-dancing role, which Balanchine, then in his sixties, performed at a preview on May 27, 1965. The leading character was the Don’s vision of Dulcinea, the ideal woman, dazzlingly realized by Suzanne Farrell at the beginning of her career.  The Act II episode in the Palace was the setting for a Sarabande for the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Court followed by a series of divertissements.  Mitchell, with Gloria Govrin as his partner, danced the “Rigaudon Flamenco,” which he described as “so fast, like running around tap dancing.”[40]  Govrin asked Balanchine why he had given Mitchell such a small part.  Balanchine replied, “One day Arthur will be a director and I want him to know everything—what everyone does in the last row, in the front row, and all the different parts.”[41]  But clearly dissatisfied with the ballet as a whole, Balanchine revised it continually for several years, then retired it permanently.

In the mid-1960s Jerome Robbins’ revival of Afternoon of a Faun, a haunting mood piece, was danced by Mitchell and Kay Mazzo, who, at the age of fifteen had already performed the work with John Jones in Robbins’ company, Ballets: USA.  Mitchell also danced it with Patricia McBride and in the early 1970s brought it into the repertory of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Balanchine’s Metastasis and Pithopraka, premiered in 1968, in his modernist, experimentalist mode (as, in their very different ways, were sections of Ivesiana and Episodes, among others), was a two-part work to “far-out” music (Clive Barnes) of Iannis Xenakis, a Greek composer who was also a mathematician and an architect. Metastasis was seen as a powerful group number for a “featureless mass.”[42]  Pithoprakta, an unusual duet for Mitchell and Farrell backed by black-clad corps, was described as “quirky and seemingly willfully disjointed” by critic Jean Battey.[43]  The choreography for Mitchell included “head rolls, hip gyrations, a jiggling puppet-like anger”; Farrell was left alone on stage at the end, “kneeling, folding her arms over her head and placing her palms against each side of it.”[44] As Farrell remembers the “very vague” choreography, “My steps were backbends turning on the floor; Arthur did a lot of shaking.  We were rarely supposed to touch.  Most of it was done with parallel palms a few inches apart.  When I came offstage I never had the least idea how I had danced or what effect I had made.”[45]  Whatever the much debated theatrical impact of the ballet as a whole, Pithoprakta (in Greek, “action by probabilities”) did not contain rewarding choreography for the two leads and did not last long.

After the Agon pas de deux and role of Puck, another, somewhat lesser “signature role” for Mitchell was that of the Hoofer in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. This broad, lighthearted ballet had been choreographed by Balanchine in 1936 as part of the Broadway musical On Your Toes, at which time it made history as the first full-scale ballet in a musical and the first to advance the action of the rest of the show. The original choreography was lost, so in 1968 Balanchine, using the original Richard Rodgers score, rechoreographed this low-life tale of a Hoofer and a Striptease girl.  Balanchine called on Mitchell to create the jazz-tap sequences.  Thirty years after its opening, the ballet was considered by critics something between a campy entertainment and a has-been, but it remained a great audience favorite and provided Mitchell with a role that fit him to a “T.”

Perhaps ironically, Mitchell was not involved in Balanchine’s most important choreography of the period, his three-part, evening-length Jewels (1967).  Its central section, “Rubies,” set to Stravinsky’s Capriccio, with its powerful jazz accents, daring partnering, speed, rhythmic complexity, and playful tone, would seem to have suited him perfectly.  But Mitchell was in Brazil for much of the ballet’s rehearsal period and may have been out of the country for the premiere.

In fact, ever since joining NYCB Mitchell had made time for numerous outside projects,  dancing in musical theater productions and as a guest with modern dance groups.  He also made a number of guest appearances with ballet companies outside the United States, often in dramatic roles.  In 1963, among these were Mercutio in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet (Stuttgart Ballet) and Othello in Heinz Rosen’s The Moor of Venice (Bavarian State Opera Ballet, Munich).  In 1964 he appeared as Orestes in Grant Strate’s Electre (National Ballet of Canada).  Starting in the 1960s, he began organizing festival events, including assembling dancers for Gian Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy (1960 and 1961), and later creating a company of thirty-one black dancers for the First World Festival of Negro Arts, to be held in Dakar, Senegal.  (The plan fell through when the U.S. State Department withdrew its funding.)  In 1967, at the request of the State Department, he assisted in organizing the first federally funded ballet company in Brazil.  Although this effort was short-lived, within a year a wealthy Brazilian industrialist, Paulo Ferraz, with the encouragement of his dancer wife Regina Ferraz, asked Mitchell to form the Companhia Brasileira de Ballet, a private ballet company.  As a result of these activities Mitchell began dancinglessand less in (full) NYCB seasons, and by 1971 his name was no longer on the NYCB roster.  However, on June 24, 1972 he danced his seminal role in Agon for NYCB’s acclaimed Stravinsky Festival, partnering Allegra Kent once again.  This was his last appearance on stage as a member of the company.  However, in 1973 he participated in a project to film fifteen Balanchine ballets in Berlin under the auspices of RM Productions.  Once again he danced the Agon pas de deux with Kent, the original understudy for Diana Adams in 1957.  Balanchine was dissatisfied with the technical aspects of several of the films, and many were never shown in the United States.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred on April 4, 1968.  Within a month, Balanchine set Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles as an homage to the slain leader.  The dancers wore long white robes and carried candelabras, which created multiple patterns of light.  Mitchell, as the King figure clothed in purple, was raised aloft by the group of dancers “against a back scrim of light streaks shooting skyward.”[46]

King’s death had been the motivation for the founding by Mitchell and Karel Shook, his ballet teacher and mentor, of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, an all-black classical ballet company.  After three years of preparation, including the establishment of a school, the group gave its first performance in 1971 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with Mitchell listed as artistic director.  As they had throughout Mitchell’s professional career as a dancer, Balanchine and Kirstein stood by him, offering support both financial and artistic.  From the start, the new company was permitted to add several Balanchine works to its repertory.  In 1971 Balanchine and Mitchell together choreographed Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra for the dancers of the two companies combined.  Over the next three decades, as Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “heart and soul,” Mitchell would guide this unique enterprise to international acclaim.

Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Reynolds


Nancy Reynolds danced with the New York City Ballet during the years Balanchine was creating Agon, Stars and Stripes, Liebeslieder Walzer, and Episodes.  Later she began a second career as editor and author; an early assignment was the editing of Lincoln Kirstein’s Movement and Metaphor.  Her books include Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet, Choreography by George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works (research director), and No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (with Malcolm McCormick). She was an editor of the six-volume International Encyclopedia of Dance.  Reynolds has been director of research at The George Balanchine Foundation since 1994, where she conceived and continues to direct the Video Archives program, working with such dance legends as Alicia Markova, Maria Tallchief, Frederic Franklin, Alicia Alonso, Allegra Kent, Jacques d’Amboise, Violette Verdy, and Melissa Hayden, among others.  In 2013 Reynolds was honored with a “Bessie” award for service to the field of dance.



Research for this essay rests primarily on my first-hand observations as dancer in the corps de ballet of New York City Ballet, 1957-1961, years that overlapped to some extent with Arthur Mitchell’s tenure in the company; and my authorship of two books, Repertory in Review: Forty Years of the New York City Ballet  (New York: Dial Press, 1977), for which Mitchell provided a lengthy interview (1974), and (with Malcolm McCormick), No Fixed Points: Dance in the 20th Century  (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2003).  Another invaluable source was Jacqueline Quinn Moore Latham’s Ph.D. dissertation, “A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists—Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey: In the Idioms of Ballet and Modern Dance, Respectively” (Texas Woman’s University, 1973).  The Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, is the principal repository  for New York City Ballet programs from its inception in 1948 through the present, many of which were of great help in pinning down Mitchell’s roles and dates in NYCB performances.  Finally, I am grateful to Lynn Garafola, curator of  Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer for providing me with a timeline of Mitchell’s professional activities and for alerting me to related materials.

[1] “Performance with Balanchine’s Company,” National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP), 2010, Part 4.

[2] Arthur Mitchell et al., “NYCB and DTH Anniversary Reflections,” Ballet Review 22, no. 3 (Fall 1994), 17.

[3] “Performance with Balanchine’s Company,” NVLP.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Pas de Deux,” NVLP, Part 5.

[6] Ann Barzel, “Dance Review,” The Chicago American, May 8, 1957; quoted in Jacqueline Quinn Moore Latham, “A Biographical Study of the Lives and Contributions of Two Selected Contemporary Black Male Dance Artists—Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey: In the Idioms of Ballet and Modern Dance, Respectively,” Ph.D. diss., Texas Woman’s University, 1973, 250.

[7] Quoted in Nancy Reynolds, Repertory in Review:  Forty Years of the New York City Ballet  (New York: Dial, 1977), 182.

[8] Edwin Denby, “Three Sides of ‘Agon’” [1959], reprinted in Dance Writings, ed. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (New York: Knopf, 1986), 462.

[9] John Martin, “Dance Premieres: All Four of Balanchine’s New Ballets Score High,” New York Times, February 2, 1958, X17.

[10] Nancy Goldner, “1957: Agon,” Balanchine Variations (Gainesville:  University Press of Florida, 2008), 71.

[11] Quoted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review, 183.

[12] Background interview for Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[13] “Pas de Deux,” NVLP.

[14] “Pas de Deux,” NVLP.

[15] Quoted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review, 183.

[16] “Pas de Deux,” NVLP.

[17] Melissa Hayden quoted in Barbara Milberg Fisher, In Balanchine’s Company: A Dancer’s Memoir (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 2006), 155.

[18] Barbara Milberg quoted in Milberg Fisher, op. cit., 155.

[19] Lincoln Kirstein, Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet (New York:  Praeger, 1970), 242-43.

[20]Agon at Sixty,” symposium organized by the New York Review of Books Foundation, New York, June 26, 2017.

[21] Quoted in Olivier Merlin, Stravinsky (Paris:  Hachette, 1968).

[22] Mitchell quoted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review, 72.

[23] Quoted in Latham, “A Biographical Study,” 255.

[24] Harriet Johnson, “The Dance: A Bright City Ballet Opening,” New York Post, September 23, 1964.

[25] John Martin, “Ballet: ‘Medea’ Premiere,” New York Times, November 27, 1958, 53.

[26] Background interview for Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[27] Ibid.

[28] John Martin, “Ballet: High-Brow Fun,” New York Times, December 8, 1960, 44.

[29] P.W. Manchester, Dance News, January 1961; reprinted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review, 212.

[30] Arthur Mitchell Coaching Agon, DVD produced by the George Balanchine Foundation, 2007.

[31] Edwin Denby, “Western Symphony and Ivesiana,” Center, October 1954; reprinted in Dance Writings, 452.

[32] Background interview for Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[33] Arlene Croce, “Dancing in a Red Tutu,” The New Yorker, May 16, 1977, 82; reprinted in Going to the Dance (New York: Knopf, 1982), 24.

[34] Walter Terry, “The City Has a Royal Ballet in 'Dream':  New Balanchine Creation Marks an Important Step,” New York Herald Tribune, January 28, 1962, C3.

[35] Doris Hering, “. . . With Dances and Delight,” eringHhhDance Magazine, March 1962, 37.

[36] Arthur Mitchell Coaching Agon.

[37] Quoted in Nancy Reynolds, “When Balanchine Went Home, Dance Magazine, August 2012.

[38] Background interview for Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[39] Mitchell quoted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[40] Background interview for Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[41] Background interview for Reynolds, Repertory in Review.

[42] Clive Barnes, “Balanchine Ballet Soars on Far-Out Music,” Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1968, E11; P.W. Manchester, Dance News, March 1968, reprinted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review, 452.

[43] Jean Battey, “‘Apollo’ is Still Striking at Age 40,” Washington Post, February 4, 1968, E4.

[44] Doris Hering, “The Material of Dance,” Dance Magazine, March 1968.

[45] Farrell quoted in Reynolds, Repertory in Review, 253.

[46] Frances Herridge, “The Dance:  Tribute to Dr. King,” New York Post, May 3, 1968.


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