In 1957, a black man partnering a white woman onstage was the stuff of scandal. But dance legend Arthur Mitchell, who did just that when George Balanchine created a pas de deux for him and fellow New York City Ballet dancer Diana Adams, was never one to be cowed by adversity. Yesterday at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Mitchell, now 75, recounted his incredible journey — from his beginnings as a member of a Harlem street gang to becoming the first black male principal dancer in a major American ballet company, and eventually founding a company of his own, Dance Theatre of Harlem, which brought African American ballet dancers into the mainstream.
Before a rapt crowd that included opera diva Jessye Norman, Mitchell talked with dance critic Robert Greskovic about a lifetime spent proving he could achieve the impossible. Case in point: When he won a scholarship to the New York High School of Performing Arts, he had had virtually no dance training and his body was very stiff. “They said, ‘He’ll never be a dancer,'” Mitchell recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ And I went into the studio and I stretched so much that I ripped all my stomach muscles. That is the kind of grit and determination that I’ve got about everything I want to do.”
The talk was part of DTH’s 40th anniversary celebration, which also includes an exhibition on view at the NYPL through May 9. After the jump, we share some other highlights from Mitchell’s tales.
On encountering racism: “During senior year at Performing Arts, you went to auditions, and that’s when I really ran into racism. I knew I was the best dancer there, but I wouldn’t get the job. [When I auditioned for “Your Show of Shows,”] Rod Alexander called me over and said, “That was the most phenomenal audition I’ve ever seen in New York City. But unfortunately I can’t use you. I can’t put a black boy on national television.” I said, “Now Mitchell, you can sit down and say that because you’re black you’re not going to get it. Or you can show them that against all odds, you’re going to make it. Get the classical ballet training. That will make you unique.” So I took the scholarship [to the School of American Ballet] and that’s how my life changed.
When I got to the school, there were only two people of color there: Louis Johnson and Chita Rivera. The first thing [SAB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein] said to me was, “You are a negro. In order for you to get into the corps de ballet you have to be the equivalent of a principal dancer.” And I said, “You’re on.” You always have to be better. That’s what I try to instill in my dancers and my students: You have to be the best.
On his debut performance with New York City Ballet: [Principal dancer] Jacques d’Amboise was filming Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, so they said, “We want you to do the fourth movement [of Western Symphony] with Tanaquil LeClerc.” I was so nervous. On opening night I said, ‘Mr. Balanchine, these pants don’t fit!’ And he said, “My dear, you’ve got them on backwards.”
On working with Balanchine on the Agon pas de deux: Mr. Balanchine said, “Arthur, this has to be perfect. Even the placing of the hands, it’s got to be correct.” He used my color against Diana’s, because she was very pale. The color was part of the texture of all of the steps. It was an incredible experience. And then Mr. Stravinsky came from Los Angeles, and to see them together was … just amazing. It just blew my mind. Mr. Stravinsky was to Mr. Balanchine what Mr. Balanchine was to me. And he became part of what I am. I tell people, “You’re looking at a young African American male raised like an old-fashioned Russian aristocrat.”
On founding DTH: I was in a taxi and they announced that Dr. King had passed away on the way to the hospital. And I said, “God damn it, why is it every time we have someone who’s changing the world and making it a better place, they’re taken away?” So I decided, put your money where your mouth is. I grew up in Harlem and lived during the riots during the Forties. I saw how this anger in young people growing up can really decimate a place. So I thought, “What can you do to go back to the community where you were born and help change it?”
I took my own personal money, which was about $25,000 … and I started with two dancers and thirty children. Inside of two months we had two hundred kids. In four months we had eight hundred kids. Mr. Balanchine didn’t want me to stop dancing … so I made a promise to him and Lincoln. He said, “My dear, if you do this you must understand you’re in service to the art form.” To this day I still live by that credo. That’s why I’m not married and why I don’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. That’s my love, that’s my passion and that’s what I’m about.
On what makes DTH unique: When people hear “ballet,” they think of nineteenth-century, romantic-style dance. We wanted to show an evening of theatrical dance grounded in the classical technique. That’s why we’re called Dance Theatre of Harlem, not Ballet Theatre of Harlem. I have to admit that in the beginning I was criticized: “He doesn’t know what kind of company he wants.” But the eclecticism became our strength. Today you have to dance every style possible to get a job, so we were ahead of our time.
I jokingly say that DTH is a company of rejects. Because they’re all people who were told they’d never be dancers because they were black. But once they started believing in themselves, they hit that stage and they were magic. I say to the dancers, “Don’t be classical, because that’s an affectation. Be classic, and then you’re unique.”