Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer

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Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer celebrates the extraordinary career of the New York City Ballet’s first African American star and the founder and longtime director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  Born in Harlem, Mitchell studied at the High School of Performing Arts, danced on Broadway and with modern dance groups, and in 1955 was invited by NYCB’s artistic director George Balanchine to join the internationally acclaimed company.  Balanchine created several great roles for him, including the pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962).

In 1968, galvanized by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mitchell, with Karel Shook, formed what became the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  Like The Studio Museum in Harlem and Negro Ensemble Company, DTH was forged in the crucible of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements.  DTH was a company of dancers on a mission, intent on proving that African Americans could dance classical ballet.  Harlem was their home, but they also belonged to New York City and to the world.  Above all, Mitchell and his dancers believed that the making of art and beauty was also an act of justice.

Lynn Garafola

Exhibition Curator



In 1955, after studying at the School of American Ballet and with Karel Shook, Arthur Mitchell became a member of the New York City Ballet, where he worked under the tutelage of George Balanchine. During the next sixteen years Mitchell originated roles in Agon (1957), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962), and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1968), in addition to appearing in numerous repertory works. Among his partners were the ballerinas Tanaquil Le Clercq, Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Violette Verdy, and Suzanne Farrell.

Mitchell worked with numerous modern dance choreographers during the 1950s, including Shirley Broughton, Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, Donald McKayle, and John Butler, whose ensembles were racially integrated. He also appeared in Four Saints in Three Acts (1952), House of Flowers (1954), and Carmen Jones (1956), all-black Broadway shows whose casts were a Who’s Who of the up-and-coming generation of black dance talent, and in Harry Belafonte’s television specials Tonight with Belafonte (1959) and Belafonte, New York 19 (1960).

In the 1960s Mitchell accepted a number of engagements outside the United States, joining African American dancers such as Billy Wilson and Sylvester Campbell who spent much of the 1960s dancing abroad. In Germany, in 1963, Mitchell danced Othello in Heinz Rosen’s The Moor of Venice and Mercutio in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, in addition to other ballets. Unlike their American counterparts, European photographers emphasized Mitchell’s dramatic intensity and
emotional expressiveness.

Mitchell forged relationships with many photographers, and his collection is rich in images that reveal the qualities he brought to performance. Photographers were fascinated by the interplay of dark and light tonalities, the expressiveness of his hands and face, and his ability to convey vulnerability as well as a sense of play. Many of the photographs in Mitchell’s collection are unique images, and few have been displayed publicly.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis. His assassination, which plunged the country into grief, inspired Mitchell’s decision to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The company took shape in the late 1960s and made its official debut at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971. It was one of a constellation of African American arts organizations that came into existence in the 1960s in response to the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. With studios and a school in Harlem, dancers from across the African diaspora, and a repertory partly rooted in African American and diasporic experience, the company was galvanized by a mission that fused art and social justice.

The emergence of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, with Arthur Mitchell as its eloquent spokesman, received enormous attention in the media. DTH dancers appeared on the covers of Dance Magazine and Seventeen, and stories about the company in newspapers and magazines such as EbonyNewsweek, Time, and Vogue. Even before DTH made its official debut at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1971, it had made its first Caribbean tour, danced on television, and taken part in an all-star tribute to Duke Ellington.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was a community of dancers with a special relationship to Harlem and New York City. Street festivals and open houses cemented the company’s bond with its uptown community, while seasons on Broadway and other locales underscored its tie with Manhattan and beyond. Marbeth’s photographs memorialize the romance between DTH and New York.

Beginning with Dance Theatre of Harlem’s first performances in Spoleto in 1971, international touring made the company a global citizen. DTH visited London numerous times, frequently performing at Sadler’s Wells, and made highly acclaimed tours of Australia (1980), Japan (1981), the Soviet Union (1988), South Africa (1992), and China (2000). Foreign and national touring inspired many students to study at the DTH school.



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