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.

Mitchell died in New York on September 19 at the age of 84, most famous for being the first black dancer to reach the rank of principal at New York City Ballet, and for founding the Dance Theater of Harlem. He started DTH partly in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, as Jennifer Dunning noted in her obituary for Mitchell in the New York Times.

During his sixteen years with City Ballet, the long-limbed, handsome, mobile-faced dancer originated major roles in a number of Balanchine’s ballets. The most important of these were in Agon in 1957, partnering Diana Adams (and later Allegra Kent) in the non-narrative ballet’s central pas de deux, and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1962, in the all-important role of Puck.

Mitchell, a native New Yorker, was taken into City Ballet as a corps member in time for the 1955-56 fall season, and during the course of it was, like any other corps members, cast in minor roles in the repertoire. He was a Monster in Firebird, a Hunter in Swan Lake, a Drinking Companion in Prodigal Son and an elevator attendant in Todd Bolender’s Souvenirs, which is set in a seaside hotel circa 1910. But his debut performance with the company was in a principal role in Balanchine’s Western Symphony, partnering Tanaquil Le Clercq in the exuberant fourth movement, because Jacques d’Amboise was indisposed.

This is what Mitchell remembered about it: “There was some bald guy sitting right behind the conductor. And he said, ‘By god, they’ve got a nigger in the company!’ And the [audience] went crazy––shouting and screaming, like when Stravinsky did Le Sacre du Printemps. Can you imagine, in this all-white company at City Center, here I come out in a leading role dancing with Balanchine’s wife?’” Many years later, Mitchell pointed out in a filmed interview: “No one realizes what Balanchine and [company co-founder Lincoln] Kirstein went through to take—in front of the entire world—a black kid and put him in their company and have him dance with all their ballerinas. That is chutzpah.”

That chutzpah certainly came to the fore when Balanchine made Agon, in 1957, three years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued their decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education, which was intended to desegregate public schools. Nothing in that “black and white ballet” is more black or more white than that central pas de deux, in which at the premiere Mitchell manipulated the long, long white legs of Diana Adams, legs which at one point encircle Mitchell’s neck. Agon premiered a few weeks after Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas used national guardsmen to prevent black students from attending a previously all-white high school in Little Rock. And a performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker was broadcast on national television not long after that. For that performance, Balanchine re-choreographed the beginning of the Grand Pas de Deux, so that the Sugar Plum Fairy would choose her Cavalier among the men who danced the Tea, Coffee and Chocolate divertissements. An essentially bare-chested Mitchell was dancing Coffee (this is well before the variation became a sensuous woman’s solo, in 1964) and it was he who was chosen to be the Cavalier. At the filming, Mitchell reported, “Balanchine walked by me and said, ‘I hope Governor Faubus is watching,’. So he knew what was going on in the country and he was showing, in his way, how he felt about it.” When City Ballet went on tour in the South, and a presenter did not want Agon on the program, Balanchine canceled that part of the tour.

Arthur Mitchell and Allegra Kent in the “Agon” pas de deux, 1962. Photo: Madeline Winkler-Betzendahl, Stuttgart. Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions: Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer

City Ballet has never toured much in this country, but Mitchell from the beginning frequently took Dance Theatre of Harlem on the road, and outreach to kids was always part of the programming. The first time the company came to Portland was in 1980, when it was brought here by Jefferson High School, and specifically the head of the dance program there, Mary Folberg. In 1974 she had been integral to the establishment of the magnet program in performing arts at Jefferson, particularly the theater and dance components. Magnet programs were citywide, and an important part of the Portland Public Schools desegregation plan at that time. In the case of Jefferson, the performing arts program (there were also music and television components) was intended to attract white students to the Albina neighborhood school. Folberg headed a rigorous dance program and was also the artistic director of the Jefferson Dancers. She made sure, with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, that visiting artists, including those from DTH, conducted workshops for her students. Many of those students went on to professional careers in dance, including the current director of the Jefferson Dancers, Steve Gonzales, who performed with Momix for some time. Dawn Stoppiello is another; the co-founder of Troika Ranch, now based in Portland and Berlin, danced for some years in New York.

In 1982, when DTH came to town with its spectacular Firebird –– this time presented by Evergreen Events, the agency Folberg founded for that purpose –– principal dancer Elena Carter and her then husband, Dance Theatre of Harlem soloist and ballet master Joseph Wyatt, looking to move out of New York to raise a family, accepted teaching jobs at Jefferson, and both danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre and its precursors, Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre. Wyatt headed the School of OBT in its early years, and Carter, every inch the ballerina, served for many years as a role model for all ballet students in Portland, as well as professional dancers –– a living, breathing and sterling example of what Mitchell, in an interview published last January in the New York Times, said he considered his greatest achievement: “That I actually bucked society, and an art form that was three, four hundred years old, and brought black people into it.” Carter, who died in 2006, taught in the School of OBT and was also a founder of the dance program at Da Vinci Middle School, which has a highly reputable (and deserving) arts program. Their daughter, Jessica Wyatt, also became a professional dancer; Portlanders saw her dance here with Ballet Hispanico several years ago.

Another DTH star who taught at Jeff for lengthy periods was Lowell Smith. Smith was a highly dramatic dancer, and an extraordinary teacher; his style in the studio was reminiscent of a Marine drill sergeant, although far less brutal. Lowell, who was technically proficient in a variety of techniques and at his best in one-act story ballets, once told me in an interview that he really didn’t know whether to identify himself as a black, a Jew, or a white person, or all three, laughing heartily as he posed the question.

In the twenty-odd years in which Dance Theatre of Harlem toured regularly to Portland, we saw Smith dance the Preacher in Fall River Legend and tear across the stage, his whole body screaming “Stella!!!!!!!” as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. We saw Stephanie Dabney’s tough, compassionate interpretation of the title role in Firebird in the company’s lavish, tropically oriented production, designed by Geoffrey Holder, and the whole company in Dougla, a fusion ballet if ever there was one, about a Muslim wedding in an unnamed Caribbean country, and much else.

Dance Theatre of Harlem today. Photo: Dance Theatre of Harlem

In 1990, I reviewed two different DTH programs for The Oregonian when Oregon Ballet Theatre presented the company just before it went on a six- month hiatus, on the verge of financial collapse, because tour dates in Los Angeles and London had been cancelled. I was writing for The O at that time about “everything that moved,” as one staff member put it, and had also been assigned a feature story on the men of DTH by Dance Magazine. I had asked OBT’s then marketing director and press rep to set up a multi-purpose interview with Mr. Mitchell for me, and arrangements had been made for me to talk with him in his dressing room at the Keller before he conducted a dress rehearsal of Swan Lake, to which 300 young people, some from Jefferson, some designated by the Urban League to be “at risk,” had been invited.

A harried Mr. Mitchell, fresh off the plane from New York where he had made a 24-hour visit to “some money people,” as he put it, arrived in his dressing room after I did, sipping at a large container of iced tea, which he kept trying to share with me, and graciously answered my questions about the company’s financial crisis, the repertoire we were going to see, and Lowell Smith, Eddie J. Shellman, Dudley Williams and Ronald Perry, the subjects of my Dance Magazine piece. We both kept looking at our watches. And very soon it was time for rehearsal to begin and again I was invited to watch with him. As we were exiting the dressing room, Mr. Mitchell said to me, “Tell me, Martha, I thought this was just going to be an interview for the newspaper. Nobody told me you were going to ask me about the men.” I told him the company had fired its press rep the week before. “What?! Just before we got here? Why??” And without thinking I said, “Let’s just say she got uppity.” After a very long 30 seconds of silence, Mr. Mitchell burst out laughing, gave me an enormous hug, and off to rehearsal we went.

Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, for your contributions to American ballet as dancer, choreographer, teacher, artistic director, to the integration of ballet companies, which moves way too slowly still, to the integration of Portland Public Schools, which isn’t accomplished yet either. And, oh yeah, for that wonderful hug.

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For a lot more information and wonderful photographs, click on to this link from Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

 

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I urge the people who would like to know more to go to the Columbia University link and then click on to Nancy Reynolds’ wonderful essay on Arthur Mitchell’s career at City Ballet. It is from that essay that I got the information about Mr. Mitchell’s corps roles when he was first dancing with the company.

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