Diana Adams

Warm hug from (and for) a giant

"If it's good, they will like it": The late, great Arthur Mitchell left a lasting imprint on dance, and a Portland writer recalls the man.

“Thank you, thank you. Now go home and do your homework,” Arthur Mitchell told 1,500 or so cheering children in the Keller Auditorium, his voice descending from the first balcony, sounding like the voice of God.

Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company he founded in 1968, was here on tour, probably sometime in the mid-1980s, and had just performed Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, a plotless ballet set to music by Poulenc that is definitely not the usual school-show fare. DTH did have more conventional school show ballets in its repertoire at that time—John Taras’s Firebird, set in a tropical jungle rather than a Russian forest, comes readily to mind, as well as a Giselle re-cast in a Louisiana bayou. In Voluntaries, moreover, the dancers were costumed in skin-tight, dappled unitards, which could well have elicited some snickers. They didn’t. The kids were so enthralled you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Arthur Mitchell shortly after joining New York City Ballet, 1955. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions: Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer

I was astonished by their response, and said so to Mr. Mitchell (as people often addressed him), who had insisted I sit next to him for the performance. “If it’s good, they will like it,” he told me firmly, and indeed, the dancers had torn through Tetley’s blend of classical and modern movement with so much athletic energy and technical finesse, it’s doubtful the kids even noticed what they were wearing.

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