the Ballet
Ballet Encyclopedia

Arthur Mitchell

born: 1934

Arthur Mitchell was born in New York City on the 27th of March 1934. When he was very young, his father left him, his mother and four other siblings. Arthur started shining shoes for money to support the family. He used to go to the Police Athletic League glee club where he learned how to tap and at the age of thirteen Arthur was encouraged by a school guidance counselor, who had seen him jitter bug, to audition for the New York High School of Performing Arts. For his audition Mitchell performed Fred Astaire's Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and got a full scholarship. Although most dance teachers were encouraging Mitchell to go into modern dance, which was more accepted for black dancers, his ballet teachers thought that he had what it took to be a ballet dancer and encouraged him to go that route.

Arthur auditioned for the Katherine Dunham School of Dance to take more ballet classes and won a scholarship to study with Karel Shook, who became his mentor and great friend. Upon Arthur Mitchell's high school graduation in 1952 he won the school's annual dance award, being the first male student to do so and at the age of eighteen Mitchell got a scholarship to attend the School of American Ballet.

Upon his arrival at the School of American Ballet Mitchell was told by Lincoln Kirstein that if he wanted to succeed he would need to work twice as hard as any other dancer around him. Mitchell was very dedicated and worked extremely hard even though parents complained of his presence in class and him partnering their daughters. After two years of study and an appearance on Broadway in Truman Capote's House of Flowers Arthur Mitchell joined the New York City Ballet in 1955.

Mitchell's debut with the New York City Ballet was in Western Symphony but his big break wasn't until Balanchine choreographed the Agon pas de deux for him and Alegra Kent in 1957. Audience members complained about Mitchell partnering a white woman but Balanchine never payed them much attention. In 1959 Arthur became a soloist and soon after a principal dancer making him the first black principal dancer of a major ballet company. Mitchell's best performance was as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1964. In 1968, two years before he left New York City Ballet, Arthur Mitchell and Alegra Kent were finally allowed to perform the Agon pas de deux on television on the Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.

The U.S. Government asked Arthur Mitchell to help create the National Ballet of Brazil and it was during his final trip there that he learned of Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Mitchell was so shaken up by the news that he decided to help the black community of his childhood the best way he knew how, through dance. The perfect opportunity came to him when soprano singer Dorothy Maynor invited him to start a dance program at her Harlem School of the Arts. In 1968 for the first summer of the dance program there were 30 students. Arthur Mitchell would leave the doors open so that the people walking by could look in and see what was done in those classes. In just a few months the attendance had risen to 400 students and the facilities could no longer support those classes. Arthur remodeled a garage with his own money and funds found with the help of Balanchine and Kirstein and started his own dance school, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mr. Mitchell then asked his former ballet teacher Karel Shook, who was a ballet master of the Dutch National Ballet at the time, to help direct Dance Theatre of Harlem.

To try and encourage boys to join the program Mr. Mitchell relaxed the dress code, letting his students wear cut offs and jeans, and made them dance to the rhythm of drums instead of classical piano music. Students enrolled in this program studied the entire theater process: costume design and production, music, lighting and even typing. Arthur Mitchell brought his students to lecture-demonstrations in 1969 and by 1970 he had a company of 20 dancers ready for their debut at the 1971 festival in Spoleto, Italy making Dance Theatre of Harlem the first black classical ballet company.

In 1973 Arthur Mitchell and his company presented the prize-winning television special Rythmetron, choreographed by Mitchell himself in 1968. After two European tours and three National tours the company had their first full season in New York in 1974. In 1981 Dance Theatre of Harlem performed at Covent Garden and in 1982 had their first season at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, in New York. Arthur Mitchell's 1984 Creole Giselle, set in 19th century Louisiana where Giselle is the favorite mistress of the plantation owner, was the first American ballet to win England's Laurence Olivier Award for best new dance production. Dance Theatre of Harlem then toured Russia for five weeks in 1988 and segregated South Africa in 1992. Arthur Mitchell established the Dancing Through Barriers outreach program, an ongoing "traveling university" of lectures, classes and workshops for inner-city children in the U.S.A. and England. In 1993 Arthur Mitchell received the Kennedy Center Honors Award and was given Living Landmark status by the New York Landmark Conservancy. 1994 was a very difficult year for the company because it had to be downsized from 52 to 36 dancers because of lack of funds. Arthur Mitchell received the National Medal of Arts in 1995.

In 1997 Arthur Mitchell was struck a big blow when his own dancers went on strike demanding better wages, something which he didn't understand since he was giving them so much of himself as well as performing opportunities that they wouldn't get anywhere else. In 1998 he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Hall of Fame. In 2004 there was a temporary shutdown of the school and the company is still on hiatus because of lack of funds. The school is once again operational with over a thousand students enrolling every year but Mitchell still has plans and dreams for the future. He would like to have an International School of the Allied Arts. "I'd bring children from all over the world and call it Noah's Art. I'd put together a company with these young people and tour the world to show that regardless of race, class, creed or color, it's the quality of what you do that's important. "Over the years Arthur Mitchell has received Honorary Doctorates from Harvard, Princeton and 11 other institutions. He is also featured in the 2004 documentary Balanchine. We can say that Arthur Mitchell has "done for ballet what Jackie Robinson did for baseball".

On the 6th of February 2006, President Bush hosted a White House performance by and social dinner honouring the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and it's resident company. The President said that they set "a new standard for excellence in dance and [for winning] international acclaim". He also honoured the outreach programs that the school has which give the opportunity to study dance to children all over the world.

Fun Facts:
To contact or donate to help the school and company:

The Dance Theatre of Harlem
466 West 152nd Street
New York, NY, 10031-1814
tel: 212-690-2800
fax: 212-690-8736