Arthur Mitchell, who blazed a trail as New York City Ballet’s first African-American principal dancer and went on to found Dance Theatre of Harlem, died September 19 at age 84.
Born March 27, 1934, in Harlem, Mitchell studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan before accepting a ballet scholarship at New York City’s School of American Ballet. During his student years he appeared twice on Broadway, in 1952’s Four Saints in Three Acts as well as the 1954 Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers.
He joined New York City Ballet in 1956, making his debut in a leading role as a replacement for Jacques D'Amboise in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony. Mitchell broke barriers as the first African-American dancer to perform a principal role at City Ballet. Over the next 12 years he would originate two career-defining roles for Balanchine, dancing in his groundbreaking 1957 ballet Agon, and as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened New York City Ballet’s first repertory season at the New York State Theater.
Among his final works with City Ballet was the May 2, 1968, world premiere of Balanchine’s Requiem Canticles, a tribute to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King. Jr. who had been assassinated a month prior.
It was a galvanizing moment for Mitchell, who left City Ballet that year to give back to his childhood community of Harlem. Along with ballet instructor Karel Shook, Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 as a dedicated school for classical ballet and the allied arts serving the children of Harlem.
In its infancy, the school taught classes in a garage on 152nd Street in the same neighborhood where Mitchell was raised. The curriculum was designed to mirror Mitchell’s own instruction at New York City’s premiere arts institutions.
Now fully-formed as a neoclassical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem made its debut in 1971 making history as the first permanent black ballet company in America. In the 50 year since its founding, DTH has grown to become a multi-cultural dance institution with more than 300 students.
A recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor in 1993, Mitchell was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1994, which was followed in 1995 with the United States National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the School of American Ballet.