Oct 7, 2018
Arthur Mitchell is a dance icon of monumental proportion. He was the light and way for many black classical ballet dancers, but he is not a legend. Citing names and careers like Virginia Johnson, Karen Brown, Eddie Shellman, Robert Garland, Charmaine Hunter, and too many more to mention, it’s clear Arthur Mitchell, who died last month at the age of 84, was more than a legend; he was a legend maker.
Today and at the very top of classical ballet, we are having a different discussion about blacks in ballet. With the economic returns from attention that the promotion of Misty Copeland gained — dance’s version of the “Black Panther” movie effect — conversations in boardrooms of every major and regional ballet company are discussing, out of fear or great excitement, the meaningful inclusion and equity of black people once again. Leading classical ballet contributors and every noted funder have renewed inquisitiveness and questions about tangible actions in which to take.
“How do we make space for talented black people in classical ballet? How do we get black dancers?” These are the questions that are, rightfully, plaguing those in the ballet industry today. Classical ballet from its very inception has systematically shut black people out, as it was born in the royal courts of France. This reality makes it difficult for ballet companies to find the beginning point to the conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion. Classic ballet is a perfect silver sphere where the question is not helping black talent find the door to opportunity, it’s admitting that no door exists. This entire discussion is the life work and masterful accomplishment of Arthur Mitchell, co-founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and opportunity prospector of the gold that was the right for black people to study classical ballet and to be taken seriously while doing so. As a principal dancer beginning in 1956 at the New York City Ballet under the tutelage of George Balanchine (joining NYCB in 1955), Arthur Mitchell gave up everything to be that light for black people years later. He was a person who by his very nature would become an icon.
For myself as the founder and presenting partner of the Black Ballet Discovery Project (Finding Accomplished Choreographers Opportunities Now) and the Black Ballet Choreographers Symposium and Commission Conference, I have a front seat at the renewed table of possibility and equity that exists only because Arthur Mitchell dared ask the question, “What about us?”
He filtered that question through his own access and national platform for the benefit of black people and all people of color beginning in 1969 with the co-founding of Dance Theatre of Harlem School.