Arthur Mitchell: Strike a pose

He was the first black ballet star and he taught the kids of Harlem to dance - the great classical works of Balanchine, no less. On the eve of a rare UK tour, Jenny Gilbert meets the legendary Arthur Mitchell
Click to follow

On the final account sheet of the American civil rights movement, the contribution of choreographer George Balanchine - born 100 years ago this year - might easily be overlooked. What difference to the black man's lot could an apolitical Russian émigré make, holed up in a Manhattan dance studio dreaming up abstract neo-classical ballets? The flesh-and-blood evidence is Arthur Mitchell, the young black dancer Balanchine hired for the otherwise wholly Caucasian New York City Ballet in 1955 and the talent he nurtured to become America's (ergo the world's) first black principal in a classical company. And the story doesn't end there. For it was this success that inspired Mitchell, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, to "give something back" by initiating another first: a classical ballet school for the kids of Harlem, the poor and predominantly black New York neighbourhood where he grew up. Next week the dynamic and still dashingly handsome 70-year-old Mitchell presents the glorious fruits of that gesture - his 40-strong Dance Theatre of Harlem - on a UK tour that pays fulsome tribute to his mentor Balanchine.

"Can you imagine what guts it took, what foresight and determination, for Mr Balanchine to hire me in 1955?" he says, reclining magisterially in his centre of operations, a shrine to Dance Theatre's success. There on the office wall is a framed photo of Mitchell shaking hands with President Clinton. There is Mitchell in 1988 with Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev in Moscow. There is Mitchell in 1992 with Nelson Mandela on the company's tour of South Africa, an unprecedented visit before the end of apartheid. There, in 1990, is Mitchell with the company in China following Bill Clinton's Permanent Normal Trade Relations With China bill. Who said ballet was apolitical? Significantly, the company is still based in Harlem, only a few blocks from where the 1968 race riots took place.

In truth, though, no one paid much attention to Arthur Mitchell's first appearances in the mid-Fifties with New York City Ballet, partly because the 21-year-old wanted it that way. "When I was first invited to join I said yes on condition that there were no 'Negro Breaks Barrier' headlines. It's hard enough being in a minority of one. I didn't want people drawing attention to it." It was not until 1957 that the shock waves took hold, at the premiere of the seminal Balanchine-Stravinsky ballet Agon - an event the painter Marcel Duchamp said made him feel as he had done after the legendary first night of The Rite of Spring in 1913. Certainly Agon was a watershed in the history of ballet, and not just because of its abstract complexity. Though Mitchell was at that time not yet a soloist, let alone a principal, his radiant good looks and heroic bearing singled him out to dance the climactic pas de deux of the piece with Balanchine's coolest, most elegant ballerina, Diana Adams.

Looking back, it's hard not to believe Balanchine didn't select Mitchell with his colour in mind. He must have known that to pair a black man with a white woman within the subtly erotic context of this challenging choreography would throw the cat among the pigeons. The audience reacted to the duet as never before, as the traditional language of classical partnerwork was wittily and erotically inverted, the man and woman each trying to assert dominance over the other. At one point he is seen handling - or manhandling? Or fondling? - the ballerina's foot. At another point he lies flat on the floor while continuing to support her slow pirouette with a languidly outstretched hand. Some in the audience were scandalised, others were thrilled.

To this day Mitchell maintains that he and Adams "didn't dance it as a sexual pas de deux", but he does concede that "it was the sexual overtones that upset people. Part of the choreography was my skin colour against Diana's, which was very pale. So it mattered where I put my hand, precisely how my fingers rolled on her wrist to give good contrast. I realised later that the duet was also a formalised lesson to me from Mr Balanchine in how to partner, how the man should present the woman. There's a myth that it's about some kind of power struggle. But for me it was simply a male dancer presenting, or moulding, the ballerina." The choreographer, famous for his ability to complete a ballet in four or five days, said this pas de deux took him longer than anything in his life, "because it had to be exactly right". In reaction, the ballet was banned from being televised, and Mitchell, though a favourite with audiences and subsequent partner to all the leading women in New York City Ballet, didn't appear in any broadcast duet until 11 years later.

He was 36, and still in his prime as a dancer, when he threw it all in. The US government had sent him to Brazil to start up the National Ballet of Brazil. They asked him to move there, but he refused, and the last trip he made there was in July 1968. He was in a cab heading to the airport when he heard on the radio that King had been shot dead. "I got very emotional in that cab. You could see the anger and frustration building up on every street. I thought, I must do something, but what? The answer to that was staring me in the face. I said to myself, Mitchell, put your money where your mouth is, go back to your community. Do what you know how to do: teach dance." When Mitchell made the down-payment on a disused garage on 141st Street, he had no object beyond running a few classes "to get kids off the streets". He charged 50 cents a week for all the lessons you could take. At first it was only girls. "Then boys would walk by and see me teaching class with the windows and doors flung open and I'd say come on in fellas. How tall are you? Five foot ten? You wanna be on the basketball team? I can teach you how to out-jump the guy who's six foot three. The more plié you have, the higher spring you can get. OK, I'll come, they said, as long as we don't have to wear any of those, those things. So I let the guys come in and wear shorts and swim trunks. And I taught them ballet classes to drums. By the time we switched to piano, the athleticism had grabbed them." The school started with two teachers and 30 kids. It now offers pre-professional training to more than 1,000 every year, on top of a community scheme open to any local child who wants to dance. The top talent eventually feeds into DTH, which after 30 years can now boast senior teachers who also came up through its school. The evolutionary cycle would seem to be complete.

Asked why he thinks there are so few black dancers in British companies, Mitchell is quick to sympathise and slow to condemn. "You can't change a culture overnight," he says, "and without role models, why is anything ever going to change? It's very difficult being the first, believe me. And it's also got to do with the way the business works. Given that only 10 in 100 Caucasian dance students is going to make it, why should a promising black student even want to try? And there's an aesthetic issue too. I can understand why a ballet director might not want a line of 23 white swans or bayadères with one black one in the middle. On the other hand, we could get used to it, couldn't we?" Ironically, the director of Dance Theatre of Harlem is now in the process of reversing that trend in his own company. What began as a 100 per cent African-American project now contains every shade of brown and even a couple of blondes. Having set out to prove a point, Mitchell says, he realised that what he really wanted now was to "reflect what I see out there on the streets." The current repertoire, too, reflects that cultural composite. On the UK tour important works of Balanchine - Apollo, Serenade, and the still extraordinary Agon - take their place alongside the company's popular Return, choreographed by Robert Garland to the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. There's also a striking Firebird by John Taras, using Stravinsky's music but set on a tropical island, and the vibrant South Africa Suite, in which a ballerina on point does a seriously spooky impression of a grazing giraffe.

When people talk to Mitchell about "black dance", he politely interrupts them and asks them to define a black pirouette. Black subject-matter, that's different, and he is happy to supply it. But oh, he says, how different things might have been. He has in his possession a copy of a letter the impresario Lincoln Kirstein wrote in 1933 trying to raise $5,000 to bring Balanchine to America. "Balanchine had said first there must be a school. And he wanted at least eight white dancers, and eight black dancers. He actually specifies people of colour, in 1933! What happened to that request? He didn't get them, of course, because at the time those dancers didn't exist." *

Dance Theatre of Harlem is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020 7863 8000), 30 March to 10 April, then tours the UK to 15 May. See for details. The company are featured in 'The South Bank Show' on ITV, 4 April at 11.05pm