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Arthur Mitchell at San Francisco Performing Arts Library with Sheryl Flatow and Brad Rosenstein

by Toba Singer

January 21, 2004 -- San Francisco Performing Arts Library, San Francisco

"I can't tell you how often I go to an event, and someone walks up to me and says, 'You don’t know me, Mr. Mitchell, but [20 years ago] you came to my school and spoke, and today I'm a doctor'…or…'a lawyer'…or…" Arthur Mitchell came to speak about the life of George Balanchine and Mr. B's impact on him, but the interface between that relationship and Mitchell's talented tenth-driven social aspirations for Black people made the presentation richly American Dream-like, a theme (and variation) that Mr. Balanchine would no doubt have found absorbing.

Mitchell grew up "just outside" Sugar Hill in Harlem but clearly adopted the outlook of its striver constituents early in life. His father left the family when Arthur was twelve, placing him in a special relationship with his mother, as the oldest child and co-head of household. His tendency, at three years old, to walk into the classroom of the elementary school across the street from where he lived and take a seat in the back of the class, caused the principal to grant him "early admissions" and move him promptly to the front of the class.

At a school party, he demonstrated that he was really good at dancing the jitterbug and was directed to take an audition for New York's High School of Performing Arts, then in its infancy. Renting a tie and tails, Arthur set a Fred Astaire-style piece to a Sinatra song, and was instantly welcomed into the school's dance department. He said, as do so many men who attended the school as dance majors, that "everyone there had more training than I did."

Who were the great Black dancers in the early fifties? Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Carmen de Lavallade. Mitchell dreamed of dancing with Dunham's company, and eventually, on a break, went to Hollywood to dance in "House of Flowers." What put him on the path to a ballet career was the graduation solo he choreographed and performed at P.A. He set it to music by Bartôk, and after performing it, he was offered two scholarships, one to Bennington College (then an all-women's school ) and the other to School of American Ballet (then known as "The American").

Choosing a ballet career at eighteen wasn't a function of logical thinking. He saw a performance where "a female ballet dancer bourée'd across the stage, and seemed to float," and when Nanette Charisse (Cyd's sister), his ballet teacher at P.A., said encouragingly, "Arthur, you should do ballet," he decided that he would. Mitchell says that he didn't have "the most natural dance body." However, he had always worked hard (often holding two jobs in order to help support his family) and had been a fighter all his life, having belonged to two street gangs in Harlem -- The Rebels and The Hilltop Lovers. So entering the then-exclusively white world of ballet was just the kind of challenge someone with his preparation could undertake with enough confidence to succeed. Mitchell describes himself as "a man who happens to be Black," as opposed to "a Black man."

When he met the "awesome and imposing" 6'5" Lincoln Kirstein, Kirstein said to him, "You are a Negro," to which Mitchell replied, "Yes." Kirstein then said, "George and I like you, but in order to get into the corps de ballet [of New York City Ballet Company], you have to be equal to a principal."

Mitchell says of himself, "I am maniacal about what I believe," and driven by his mania, he worked around the clock to reach the goal Kirstein laid out for him. He knew Kirstein as the individual who had raised $5,000 to bring Balanchine to New York to start a school and learned that Balanchine admired the tradition of musicality in Black culture, having hoped to start that school with eight Black students and eight white students, though its composition never has boasted such an egalitarian ratio. Because of Balanchine's admiration for Black culture, and because he saw how Mitchell worked, Mitchell believes he profited from a special relationship with Balanchine. Mitchell cited "Concerto Barocco" as an example of a piece that was inspired by Balanchine's appreciation of the jazz singer and pianist, Hazel Bryant's work, as well as Josephine Baker's.

Describing Balanchine as "old school," Mitchell said that Mr. B never raised his voice in anger, and was first and foremost a musician, deeply understanding that "you have to have rhythm before you can set steps." The ballerina, Maria Tallchief, advised Mitchell to listen and learn from Balanchine. Mitchell took that advice several steps further and attached himself to famed costume designer, Barbara Karinska, and the acclaimed lighting designer, Jean Rosenthal, and became expert at both trades.

He socialized with Tallchief and the entire succession of Balanchine wives, often escorting them to social events that Balanchine chose not to attend. Mitchell describes his overall experience at New York City Ballet as "a glass half full." After traveling to Europe, where it was easier for Blacks to get work (Roland Petit had hired two), Mitchell received an invitation from Balanchine to join the NYCB corps de ballet at $90 per week. Mitchell decided to accept, but only on the condition that no "Negro Breaks Barrier," press statement was released à la Jackie Robinson, Mitchell's baseball "contemporary" in the breakthrough category.

It was apparent that Mitchell's proclivity for hard work made him a perfect candidate for understudying other dancers' roles. He frequently found himself on the receiving end of telephone calls during a matinée intermission, urging him to come to the theater because "Jacques has sprained his ankle," and having to learn a role to be performed that evening, while another dancer or the ballet master called out steps to him from the wings.

Partnering brought the race issue to center stage. Mitchell describes how a murmur of shock and disapproval rippled through the audience as the curtain opened upon a single couple, him Black, her white, and he saw the conductor’s head "shoot up" from the orchestra pit, but as the piece progressed, the audience calmed down and the pair received a standing ovation. Parents called and said, "We don't want our daughters dancing with…[that Negro]." Balanchine’s response was, "Then the girls are out!" The Board threatened reprisals when Balanchine cast Mitchell to open "Stars and Stripes," ordering him to "pull it." He didn't. When Balanchine cast Mitchell to partner the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker" he declared, "I hope that [pro-segregation] Governor [Orval] Faubus [of Arkansas] is watching!"

Mitchell detailed the economic pressures that make it much more difficult for Blacks to manage the uncertainties of sporadic dance jobs, year-to-year contracts, and schedules that preclude second jobs. In Mitchell's view, Blacks are more inclined toward those careers where there's more security at the rainbow's end -- such as medicine, law or teaching. Economic constraints and racist hiring practices have not totally discouraged professional dance careers among Black people, and Mitchell gave examples of Studio Four of the Dance Arts in New York, Agnes De Mille's having set pieces on four Black dancers -- first in the 1920s and then more successfully in the 1940s, and the careers of Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham, which gained momentum from their prior vocations as anthropologists.

Balanchine's piece, "La Valse" issued from a concept that Dunham had proposed to him. Dunham had in mind the ante-bellum quadroon balls that took place in New Orleans, where mulatto girls were introduced to white planters, hoping that resulting relationships would be coaxed along with indulgent sums of money and produce hidden children, reared in relative luxury in Europe. The mothers of these young ladies would sit along the ballroom balconies, where negotiations with the planters would take place. Mitchell pointed out that the ballroom offered a perfect setting for a Southern version of "Giselle," given the strata of social classes represented by the planters, light-skinned mulattoes, darker-skinned parents, and societies of freed slaves who purchased the freedom of bound slaves.

Mitchell spent some time discussing partnering, rising from his chair to demonstrate, and a short clip was shown of Suzanne Farrell and her first partner, Arthur Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell reminded his audience that the male partner's skill and artistry are measured by how well he presents the female partner and complained that among today’s dancers, men tend to compete with women, fracturing the partnership --
such that neither the man nor the woman ends up looking very good.

He admired Balanchine's having encouraged his dancers to study with other teachers, especially those who had something unique to contribute technically or artistically, and related instances where Balanchine incorporated moments of studio serendipity into his work. He shares Balanchine's admiration for Russian dancers such as Vakhtang Chabukiani, who, when Mitchell was visiting Russia, asked to dance the role of Othello for him.

Mr. Mitchell attributes to Stravinsky a special role in inspiring the radical thrusts and accents that Balanchine utilized to amend classical ballet into a celebration of "getting from here to there." He spoke of Balanchine's subordinate relationship to Stravinsky -- perhaps the only individual to whom Balanchine was willing to subordinate himself. He then offered an analogy that went like this: Stravinsky is to Balanchine what Balanchine is to Mitchell. Clearly, the power relationships -- who defers to whom in the hierarchy of the dance world -- fascinate Mitchell. It's a theme he returns to frequently, and prompts some concern that it may have been a factor in driving his very loyal and admiring dancers to ultimately stage a strike against Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem's wages and working conditions in 1997.

Balanchine wholeheartedly embraced Mitchell's historic decision to start Dance Theatre of Harlem. Though today it includes dancers of all races and nationalities, DTH is a ballet company based in Harlem and the Black community. Mitchell utilizes drumming to accompany ballet class, and imbues the company's work with the Angolese ritual style that he encountered in Brazil. Still, Mitchell is indebted to Balanchine for the foundation he provided. Balanchine was Vice-Chairman of DTH's Board of Directors -- the only such body outside of NYCB in which Balanchine held a post.

In spite of Arthur Mitchell's protestations that he is not a Black militant (as if that were a bad thing to be!), he does have his eyes vigilantly fixed on the prize, and if Muhammad won't come to the mountain, Arthur Mitchell will take ballet to wherever Black people are likely to embrace it -- as an audience or as performers. Mitchell declined to go to South Africa during the Apartheid Era in protest of that system, but was convinced by Nelson Mandela to change his mind and go, so that South Africans could see what Blacks and whites dancing on the same stage could look like.

His decisions about such matters are governed by his assessment that a nation should not be judged by how rich or poor it is, nor by how big or small its armed forces are. For Mr. Mitchell, the measure of a nation is the size, scope, depth, and quality of its culture. He has sought to improve those numbers for all people, while acting to leave people of African descent the world over with a legacy placing them on a better footing to fully contribute to and participate in any and all dance forms that call out to them.

Toba Singer is currently writing a book with the working title "First Position: a century of ballet artists," for Praeger Press. Parts of this interview will be included in the book which is expected to appear in the Fall of 2006.


Edited by Lori Ibay

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