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Mitchell at San Francisco Performing Arts Library with Sheryl Flatow and
by Toba Singer
January 21, 2004
-- San Francisco Performing Arts
"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
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
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
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
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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