Spotlight: Arthur Mitchell

Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on influential dancer Arthur Mitchell.

Born March 27, 1934 as one of four siblings, Mitchell grew up in Harlem, New York. After his father was sent to prison, he became the sole earner for his family at the age of 12. Some involvement with gangs led to visits to a guidance counsellor, who suggested that Mitchell audition for the High School of Performing Arts. He was accepted, and decided to aim towards a career in classical ballet.

In the early 1950s, Mitchell won a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet, the teaching school of the New York City Ballet. Mitchell performed on Broadway in the 1952 opera Four Saints in Three Acts, and in the 1954 run of Harold Arlen's House of Flowers.

With Tanaquil Le Clercq

In 1955, Mitchell made his debut in Western Symphony with the New York City Ballet, as the second African American dancer to do so until 1970. He was made a principal dancer in 1956, performing the lead roles in all of the company's major works, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Nutcracker, Bugaku, Agon, and Arcade.

Above and below: Rehearsing 'Agon' with Diana Adams

George Balanchine created the pas de deux in Agon especially for Mitchell, pairing him with ballerina Diana Adams. Some audience members objected to Mitchell being partnered with a white woman, but Balanchine refused to change the pairing. Mitchell toured this ballet all over the world, but was unable to perform it on American television until 1968, when the work was featured on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.

Above and below: Rehearsing with George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell

Mitchell left the New York City Ballet in 1966 to pursue Broadway opportunities, appearing in several shows. He also helped found several ballet companies in Spoleto, Washington, and Brazil (the National Ballet Company of Brazil).

In 1955

After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Mitchell returned to his roots in Harlem, New York. He was determined to make dance more accessible to the local children, and in 1969, he and Karen Shook founded a classical ballet school. Mitchell used $25,000 of his own money as well as $315,000 in donations from the Ford Foundation to found the school, which began with 30 children in a church basement. Within two months, Mitchell had 400 pupils. Mitchell used some of this money to convert a garage into a permanent studio for his fledgling company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, which put on its first show in 1971.

A moment of humour with mentor George Balanchine

Mitchell's school has produced many respected dancers over the years. In 1993, he was named in the Kennedy Centre Honours (one of the youngest people ever named), and in 1994 named a MacArthur fellow. In 1995 he was inducted into National Museum of Dance's Mr & Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame; in 2001 received the Annual Heinz Award for Contribution to the Arts & Humanities; in 2005 awarded a Fletcher Foundation fellowship in recognition of his achievements; and in 2006, President Bush hosted a dinner in his honour. He has also received a Unites States National Medal of Arts.

Above: Taking a masterclass at Dr. Michael Krop High School

Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in Balanchine's Agon, 1968:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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