Arthur Mitchell, Ballet’s ‘Grandfather of Diversity’

Curated by Lynn Garafola, professor emerita of dance at Barnard College, the exhibition opens the archive to the public. Ms. Garafola said in an email that it would reveal “the fuller picture of Mitchell’s performing career,” in which Broadway and modern dance figured in as well as ballet, and convey “the special spirit and sense of mission that infused the Dance Theater of Harlem” under his leadership.


A studio outreach class at the Dance Theater of Harlem in the 1970s.

Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Mr. Mitchell was inspired to form Dance Theater after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But before that, Mr. Mitchell broke the color wall in ballet by becoming the first African-American principal dancer at New York City Ballet.

He joined the company in 1955. Two years later, George Balanchine, who founded City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein, made his modernist masterpiece “Agon,” which featured a pas de deux for Mr. Mitchell and Diana Adams.

“Can you imagine the audacity to take an African-American and Diana Adams, the essence and purity of Caucasian dance, and to put them together on the stage?” Mr. Mitchell said. “Everybody was against him. He knew what he was going against, and he said, ‘You know my dear, this has got to be perfect.’”

AGON Pas de Deux (Original cast) Video by John Clifford

In conjunction with donating his archive, Mr. Mitchell hosted an evening at the Miller Theater at Columbia in October exploring his legacy. As part of it, Calvin Royal III, an African-American soloist at American Ballet Theater, performed the “Agon” pas de deux with Unity Phelan of City Ballet.

The mention of Mr. Royal caused Mr. Mitchell’s face to light up. “Calvin!” he exclaimed with a clap of the hands. “If they ever did a film of a young me, it would be Calvin. He does everything, but there’s a poetry when he dances. I liked him very much in ‘Agon,’ and I think he will grow. There’s an innocence about him.”

But as for the exhibition, Mr. Mitchell said he was frustrated that there was not a sprung dance floor at Columbia’s new Lenfest Center of the Arts, which houses the Wallach gallery. The center, on 129th Street, has performance spaces — including one for theatrical productions — but Columbia’s School of the Arts does…

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