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Arthur Mitchell, the ‘Jackie Robinson’ of ballet, dies at 84

Arthur Mitchell, the ‘Jackie Robinson’ of ballet, dies at 84
Dance Theatre of Harlem's co-founder Arthur Mitchell in a 2010 file photo. Mitchell died Wednesday at 84. (Ian Foxx)

Arthur Mitchell, who paved the way for other minority dancers by becoming one of the first black dancers to join a major ballet company and who helped start the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem, died Wednesday at a hospital in New York City. He was 84.

The cause was renal failure, said a niece, Juli Mills-Ross.

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Mitchell, who described himself as the Jackie Robinson of the ballet world, was hired by choreographer George Balanchine in 1955 to perform with the New York City Ballet and won over audiences and critics with his technical brilliance and charisma.

Still, in an era when segregation was just beginning to crumble, his ascent to the upper echelon of dance met with many obstacles, from instructors who encouraged him to take up other dance genres to shocked theatergoers who wrote letters expressing outrage about Mitchell being paired onstage with a white woman.

Balanchine refused to let the objections stifle Mitchell’s talent and created numerous leading roles for him, including the principal male part in the 1957 classic “Agon” and the character of Puck in 1962’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When television programs invited the New York City Ballet to perform but requested that Mitchell sit out, Balanchine said the troupe would dance with Mitchell or not at all.

After nearly 15 years with Balanchine’s company, Mitchell struck out on his own and in 1969 co-founded an all-black dance school that grew to include an all-black professional company. He said the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a year earlier had filled him with a sense of urgency to start the school.

“When Dance Theatre of Harlem started, there was still a fallacy that black people could not do classical ballet,” Mitchell told the Toronto Star in 1995. “People said to me, ‘Arthur, you’re the exception.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I had the opportunity.’ ”

Mitchell’s company has become one of the most sought-after dance ensembles in the world, performing everything from classical ballet to contemporary and jazz-inflected works.

Arthur Mitchell, the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, coaches a Chinese dancer during an audition held at Beijing Dance Academy in this 2000 file photo.
Arthur Mitchell, the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, coaches a Chinese dancer during an audition held at Beijing Dance Academy in this 2000 file photo. (Associated Press)

A host of financial problems in the 1990s and 2000s threatened the survival of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mitchell stepped down as the institution’s director in 2009, its 40th anniversary season, and announced that Virginia Johnson, one of his former prima ballerinas, would replace him.

At the 1993 ceremony in which Mitchell received the Kennedy Center Honors, Johnson said: “We’d all been turned down, told that there was no place for us. He gave us our dream, a chance to be measured by our movement and grace, and not by the color of our skin.”

Mitchell was also recognized with a 1994 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often called the “genius grant,” and with the National Medal of Arts in 1995.

Arthur Adams Mitchell Jr., whose father was a janitor, was born in New York on March 27, 1934. He was the eldest of five siblings and ran a paper route as a boy to help his family make ends meet.

Mitchell first showed interest in the arts when he was 10 years old and became a member of the Police Athletic League glee club. A few years later, a school guidance counselor saw Mitchell do the jitterbug and encouraged him to apply to New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts.

Not long afterward, Mitchell auditioned with a Fred Astaire-inspired tap routine and was accepted. He excelled, immersing himself in all disciplines of dance, including jazz, modern and ballet.

Upon his graduation in 1952, Mitchell declined a scholarship to Bennington College’s widely respected modern-dance program and instead chose to attend the School of American Ballet, the conservatory run by Balanchine that served as the training ground for his company, the New York City Ballet.

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Some students’ parents bristled at the idea of their children dancing alongside a black man and complained that they didn’t want their daughters being paired with him.

During his studies at the ballet school, Mitchell appeared on Broadway in a small role in the Truman Capote and Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” and performed with the companies of Donald McKayle and Anna Sokolow, among others. Around this time, Mitchell was doing a brief performance stint in Europe when he received a telegram asking him to join the New York City Ballet.

“I said I would come home with one condition: that there be no publicity that a negro — at that time we used the word ‘negro’ — was breaking any kind of racial barrier. I wanted to get in the company on my own merits,” he told the Washington Times in 1993.

Mitchell made his debut with the New York City Ballet in 1955 in “Western Symphony” and two years later was cast as the lead male dancer in “Agon.” For this abstract, no-frills ballet, Balanchine eschewed the ornate glitz of a typical ballet costume and instead put Mitchell in a plain white T-shirt and black tights, and had his duet partner, Diana Adams, outfitted in a plain leotard.

Mitchell later told ABC News anchor Peter Jennings that Balanchine “purposely choreographed it so the intertwining of the arms and the bodies, the colors, along with the geometric patterns of the bodies, made the choreographies.” The dance’s spare style and its pairing of a black man with a white woman were pioneering, if not shocking, for 1950s audiences.

Balanchine and his business partner Lincoln Kirstein had a profound effect on Mitchell and the high expectations he set for his own company.

“I’m still a street kid from Harlem whose father was a janitor, but wherever I went, their standards were my norm,” he said.

In the late 1960s, Mitchell’s career began to shift gears. He left the New York City Ballet in 1968, worked to establish a dance troupe in Spoleto, Italy, and set up a national ballet company in Brazil. But as he headed from his New York home to the airport for one of many trips to Brazil, he heard that King had been shot and killed.

Mitchell has said that he thought to himself: “I could wait for others to change things for black Americans. Here I am running around the world doing all these things — why not do them at home? I believe in helping people the best way you can; my way is through art.”

With that, he went home to Harlem. He began teaching dance in a garage, with only two students showing up to the first session. Within months, he had about 400 students and had moved the class to a church basement. Because of the way children flocked to him, some called him “The Pied Piper of Dance.”

Today, Dance Theatre of Harlem remains a predominantly black company but has expanded to include people of other backgrounds. Some of its best-known works include “A Streetcar Named Desire,” adapted from the Tennessee Williams play, and 1984’s “Creole Giselle,” which brushed the cobwebs off the old ballet standard “Giselle” and reset it in 19th century Louisiana.

Mitchell had no immediate survivors.

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A testament to his passion for dance and his belief in its transformative powers, he once said, “Anyone living without the arts in their lives is living in a desert.”

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