Arthur Mitchell: That old Harlem magic

The world's best-known black dance company is coming to Britain - still run by the man who founded it 35 years ago. Zoë Anderson meets Arthur Mitchell
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The Independent Culture

Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, and he's still keeping an eye on every aspect of it. He thinks up advertising tag-lines; he checks details of costumes; he tells expansive stories about the company's triumphs. At 70, he moves with a touch of explosive energy, and he lights up when he talks about the dancers. "That's what I'm supposed to be doing, in this life. It's ballet. When I told Mr Balanchine I wanted to do this, he said, 'Once you commit yourself, Arthur, you're married for life. Nothing else can replace it. And you cannot get divorced.' "

George Balanchine, the 20th century's greatest ballet choreographer, gave Mitchell his chance as a dancer. In 1955, when Mitchell joined Balanchine's New York City Ballet, he was the first black dancer in an American ballet company. Mitchell made one condition on joining: no publicity. He wanted to get on through his dancing, not through headlines.

The publicity came two years later, when Balanchine cast Mitchell in Agon, the last of his great collaborations with Stravinsky. Mitchell was 23, and he was dancing the great pas de deux. He's still awestruck by Balanchine's decision. "Can you imagine the chutzpah, the inner strength, to put a black man with Diana Adams - who was real white - together on a stage? It's defying society in every way." Mitchell went on to partner most of the company's ballerinas, but television companies didn't dare show his performances until well into the 1960s.

When he joined NYCB, Mitchell was bursting with enthusiasm. In the studio, he kept interrupting, overflowing with suggestions. "Mr Balanchine said, 'Dear, you're like one of the old ladies in church, telling the priest what to do.' So, after that I quietened down, but I listened."

Even then, Mitchell was interested in the workings of a company. "I tell my dancers: pick my head. I teach them about lighting, costumes, choreography, everything. Because that's what Balanchine allowed me to do. I just followed him around. So I know how to make a costume. I know how to sew, I know how to fit the gusset, everything."

I spoke to Mitchell at his Harlem headquarters, as the company was preparing for its tour of British cities. Costumes were being fitted for Balanchine's Apollo, and Mitchell was checking the fit of Apollo's short, one-shouldered tunic: "Give it enough drape, so it doesn't ride up. When he raises his arms, I don't want to see his belly button." Most Apollos wear white. Because Harlem is a primarily black company, its Apollo's tunic is coffee-coloured silk, the design adjusted to suit darker skin tones.

Mitchell is ready to talk about colour, and eager to transcend it. Dance Theatre of Harlem is the world's most famous black ballet company. In fact, it is an ethnically diverse troupe, but that identity is still important to it. At the same time, the point is dancing, not identity politics. "When you watch Dance Theatre, you don't think: they're black, white, coloured, green, red. The magic when they hit the stage, that's what's important. And the passion, in that there's a great love for the dance."

Mitchell started the company as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. After his own shock, and the rioting that greeted the news, he returned to his own community determined to put something back. His aim was "to use all that anger and energy positively, to get young people off the streets". He started his school in an old Harlem garage, spending his capital on a properly laid dancefloor.

The school now takes more than 700 students a year, and is still strongly rooted in the Harlem community. Dancers regularly visit New York schools to give lecture- demonstrations, encouraging interest in ballet. It's also something the company does on tour. "Most companies, they come, perform, and they go home," Mitchell says. "I want to have a deeper, an actual relationship with the people of the country."

He's hugely proud of his company's educational side. "We can do our outreach programme in English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. It's my dancers, and some of the teachers. We can go into any community and speak that language." They reach a broad audience, too. When the company visited Sadler's Wells last year, "Everyone was stunned that it was such a large black constituency that wanted to go to the ballet. I'm glad that we are able to bring them out, and I hope that they'll be inspired to go see other things."

The company's repertoire includes plenty of works "inspired by the African diaspora", as its manifesto puts it, but it all starts with classical technique. "In the beginning, most of the repertoire was given to us by Mr Balanchine. We were a neoclassical ballet company - that's the schooling that I come from."

As the company prospered, Mitchell moved on to the 19th-century classics. "At first, I wasn't that interested in doing the classics. But then I felt that I was cheating the dancers by not doing them. In the beginning, the fallacy was that blacks couldn't do classical ballet. So I said, OK, we have to dance everybody's repertoire, then they can't say anything."

As with that coffee-coloured tunic, he was ready to adapt the ballets for his company. One celebrated production relocated Giselle from an Austrian village to a plantation in Louisiana. The company's Firebird, included on this British tour, is set on a Caribbean island. They don't always change things: Michael Smuin's A Song for Dead Warriors is a ballet about Native Americans, but, comments Mitchell, "It's doubly fascinating to see it danced by a black company."

This is Balanchine's centenary year, and he dominates the tour repertoire. They're bringing four ballets, including Agon, the work that made Mitchell a star. "It really changed dance in the world. And to be part of that was amazing. Mr Balanchine and Stravinsky, they both were just intrigued with America, with the kinetic energy and the speed, and with jazz, and they incorporated that into classical ballet."

What about new repertoire? There's a current shortage of ballet choreographers, with companies the world over hoping for a new Balanchine. Mitchell agrees that there's a problem, but points to his dancers' training. "Thirty-five years ago, when I started, they said, "Arthur Mitchell doesn't know what sort of company he wants. They're doing modern, they're doing ballet, they're doing ethnic, da da da. Now, every company in the world is doing that, trying to find new repertoire. But these dancers are trained to do it." He's encouraging work from within the company. His brightest hope is the young choreographer Robert Garland, whose soul ballet Return will be included in the British tour.

Dance Theatre of Harlem is now 35 years old. Mitchell shows no signs of slowing down. He still rehearses dancers, still pays attention to his company. "This is my life. I have no hobbies. I have no biological children, but these dancers are all my children, in a sense. Some of them get obstreperous, and they want to fight the father, but that's the way it is. I say, 'You know, I'm a war-torn, battle-scarred gladiator. I've survived. I've been in the business 54 years. There is no trick, there's nothing that you think you can do, that I don't know or haven't tried myself. So just relax and dance'."

Dance Theatre of Harlem is at Sadler's Wells, 30 March to 10 April, then tours the UK (