Catching Up With Mitchell's Ballet Mission

When Arthur Mitchell set about creating Dance Theater of Harlem nearly 20 years ago, he was a man with a mission. Even though he currently thinks that, during those two decades, "I achieved everything I set out to accomplish," Mitchell still comes across as an intense missionary.

Today, as his company prepares for Southern California performances (beginning Monday in Pasadena Civic Auditorium), he speaks of newer, ongoing concerns: among them audience development, corporate support of the arts and the particular breed of dance artists (the term he prefers to use) that is being cultivated in the 1980s.

As director of both a school (through whose ranks nearly all of the current company members have progressed) and a company (now numbering 55 dancers), he is passionate about issues of leadership and influence in today's dance world.

"People think that being an artistic director just involves casting and choosing ballets," he says, sitting in his small, utilitarian company office. "You've got to be an entrepreneur, fund-raiser, mentor, psychiatrist--you have to really know the administrative and social end as well as the artistic.

"It's really about developing rounded artists, but that takes time. With young dancers today, the technique has become the end rather than the means to an end. There is no artistry, because no one is thinking in terms of building a career. They don't think of the long range.

"Stars don't happen overnight; they're the ones who have stayed and built. Today we tend to want things too quickly. But you can't build a career without having a base from which to grow."

To this end, Mitchell oversees a multifaceted education for his dancers, offering them music and dance history courses in the school, inviting them to museums and symphony concerts in cities they visit on tour.

For the more senior company members, he has developed an in-house career transition operation. He involves and instructs them in many different aspects of the company's functioning, from grant proposals to sound systems to tour planning.

At the moment, Dance Theater of Harlem is between major high-visibility projects, both of which crystallize some of Mitchell's most burning concerns. One was the 90-minute NBC telecast "Creole Giselle," which brought a trimmed-down version of the company's adventurous 1984 staging of the ballet classic to a national network audience on the Sunday after Christmas.

"The fact that we got it on is a miracle," Mitchell says, enthusing about the achievement of reaching a potential audience of 6 million to 8 million and, he hopes, lighting a fire in youngsters who had no prior contact with ballet.

He understands that aficionados cringed at the idea of commercial breaks mid-act (although he notes that the five breaks that aired represented a major reduction from the 14 originally proposed), but he looks beyond that to other issues: "Critics have to understand that we're dealing with an uneducated public in the fine arts in many areas. Consequently, you've got to find a way to turn them on and get them there."

After overcoming the odds against getting network air time for such a program, Mitchell was presented with another unforeseen hitch: Erratic scheduling of the program on much of the West Coast resulted in many viewers tuning in at the announced time only to discover the program had just been shown. "Many places did not get a chance to see it because of the mix-up, and it affected the ratings, which were very good but would have been that much better," Mitchell says.

The other big event on Dance Theater of Harlem's horizon is a five-week Russian tour that will take the company to Moscow, Tbilisi and Leningrad in May as part of this country's exchange initiative with the Soviet Union. The tour is under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency, but that does not mean that the company is being given any financial guarantees.

"We have to raise $600,000 for the tour, on top of the regular $2.5 million needed for our operating budget," Mitchell says. Given the fallout from last October's stock market crisis, which has caused some curtailment in donations to the arts, the company is looking to novel approaches in seeking the necessary funds. One such approach was an appeal for support for the tour signed by leading sports figures, including Martina Navratilova and Magic Johnson, which Mitchell says received a good response.

His main hope is that a corporate sponsor will recognize a powerful marketing opportunity and come forth to underwrite the tour deficit. "What better advertising could there be than having a large company perform under their auspices, as a gift to the Russian people? The benefits they would derive from it would be incredible." Among these would be additional visibility through a television documentary that is being planned.

Mitchell's enthusiasm is particularly in evidence when he discusses this tour, which will feature contemporary works, Balanchine ballets and such vintage Americana as "Fancy Free" and "Fall River Legend." "Seeing a black company doing neoclassical ballets is going to be a very eye-opening experience for the Russian audiences," he predicts.

Included in the repertory for the current Southern California tour are two relatively recent additions to the troupe's repertory--both choreographed on the company. "Footprints Dressed in Red" (on the opening Pasadena program), set to John Adams' "Grand Pianola Music," represents the first time Garth Fagan, director of Bucket Dance Theater, has worked with ballet dancers. "Toccata e due Canzoni" (to be danced in Symphony Halls San Diego, for the first time Feb. 11), set to a score by Martinu, is by former San Francisco Ballet dancer John McFall. Both, in Mitchell's opinion, epitomized the type of "American classicism" he sees as the company's forte.

Further additions will come next summer when the company premieres its stagings of Loring's "Billy the Kid" and Fokine's "Polovtsian Dances," as well as "John Henry" (Mitchell's first new choreography in a decade), set to Paul Robeson songs.

"Everything is very premeditated and purposefully done, in terms of developing dance artists," he says. "I choose the repertory that I feel is going to push them to another level."

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