Master of modern ballet is saved from life as a tramp in New York

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The Independent Online
WHEN an ambulance stopped to scoop him up from the street one cold evening last month, Arthur Bell was just another of New York's homeless wanderers. Barely able to stand, he found himself deposited in a local hospital. From there, he would soon have been sent to a shelter. But for his burblings.

The 71-year-old black man with frostbite on his feet was telling anyone who would listen about a long-ago life in London and Paris and about some improbable acquaintances in the world of ballet, including such late greats as Sir Frederick Ashton and Margot Fonteyn. Senile dementia, the nurses assumed.

"And they went, `Yeah, yeah, yeah'," recalled Maria Mackin, the social worker assigned to the case. But Ms Mackin, who herself used to photograph dancers for a ballet shoe company, began to listen more carefully. She checked out his stories at the New York Library for Performing Arts.

"I was absolutely thrilled," Ms Mackin said. "I thought, oh my God, this is incredible, if this is true. And I really believed it was true and that the world had let this man slip through the cracks."

And indeed, this old man, who this weekend remains in a nursing home in Queens, has been over-modest. One of nine children of a Florida preacher, Mr Bell was not only a dancer, but one of the first black dancers to break the race barrier in ballet after the Second World War. His proudest moment came in Manhattan in 1950, when Ashton chose him as a guest soloist in the world premiere of Illuminations, based a collection of French poems by Arthur Rimbaud. Bell is still able to remember every note of the music composed by Benjamin Britten.

From Manhattan, Bell travelled to Paris, where he danced with the Theatre des Champs Elysees and, he says, lived in the same rooming house as the author James Baldwin. He returned to New York in the 1960s and worked odd clerical jobs. Then his life and his fortunes began to slip away.

"It was just amazing to me that one of my patients was among the first black men in ballet," said Ms Mackin. "He was still incredibly graceful, getting out of bed, slender, sleek."

As he learns to walk again with a stick, Bell says he is not bothered that he will never dance again, because "when you love something, the love for it just goes beyond anything. Dancing is in my soul."