Arthur Mitchell (dancer)

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Arthur Mitchell
Arthur Mitchell in 1955 by Carl Van Vechten
Born(1934-03-27)March 27, 1934
Harlem, New York City, U.S.
DiedSeptember 19, 2018(2018-09-19) (aged 84)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
  • Ballet dancer
  • Choreographer
  • Artistic Director

Arthur Mitchell (March 27, 1934 – September 19, 2018)[1] was an American ballet dancer, choreographer, and founder and director of ballet companies. In 1955, he was the first African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet, where he was promoted to principal dancer the following year and danced in major roles until 1966. He then founded ballet companies in Spoleto, Washington, D.C., and Brazil. In 1969, he founded a training school and the first African-American classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Among other awards, Mitchell was recognized as a MacArthur Fellow, inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame, and received the United States National Medal of Arts and a Fletcher Foundation fellowship.

Early life[edit]

Mitchell was one of four siblings, the son of a building superintendent, and grew up in the streets of Harlem, New York.[1] Forced at the age of 12 to assume financial responsibility for his family in the wake of his father's incarceration, Mitchell worked numerous jobs, including shoe-shining, mopping floors, newspaper delivery, and work in a meat shop. Despite his duties, Mitchell became involved with street gangs, though this did not ultimately deter him from finding success.[2]

As a teenager, Mitchell was encouraged by a guidance counselor to apply for admission to the High School of Performing Arts.[1] Upon being accepted he decided to work towards having a career in classical ballet. Following his graduation in the early 1950s, he won a dance award and scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet, the school affiliated with the New York City Ballet.[1] In 1954, following his 1952 Broadway debut in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, Mitchell would return to Broadway to perform in the Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers,[1] alongside Diahann Carroll, Geoffrey Holder, Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, and Pearl Bailey.[3]

New York City Ballet[edit]

In 1955 Mitchell made his debut as the first African American with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), performing in Western Symphony.[1] Rising to the position of principal dancer with the company in 1956, he performed in all the major ballets in its repertoire, including A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Nutcracker, Bugaku, Agon, and Arcade.[4]

Choreographer and director of the NYCB George Balanchine created the pas de deux in Agon, especially for Mitchell and the white Southern ballerina Diana Adams.[1] Audience members initially complained about partnering Mitchell with a white woman, but Balanchine refused to change the pairing. Although Mitchell danced this role with white partners throughout the world, he could not perform it on commercial television in the United States until 1968, when the performance aired on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.[4]

Mitchell left the New York City Ballet in 1966 to appear in several Broadway shows, and helped found ballet companies in Spoleto, Washington, D.C., and Brazil, where he directed a dance company. The company he founded in Brazil was the National Ballet Company of Brazil.[4]

Dance Theatre of Harlem[edit]

Ballet School of Dance Theatre of Harlem (1998)

After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Mitchell returned to Harlem, where he was determined to provide opportunities in dance for the children in that community. A year later, he and his teacher, Karel Shook, inaugurated a classical ballet school.[1][5] Mitchell had $25,000 of his own money to start the school. About a year later he received $315,000 in a matching funds grant from the Ford Foundation.[2] The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) was born in 1969 with 30 children in a church basement in a community where resources of talent and creative energy were virtually untapped. Two months later, Mitchell had attracted 400 youngsters to attend classes. Two years later they presented their first productions as a professional company. Mitchell used his personal savings to convert a garage into the company's home.[4][6]

In Harlem, DTH created an explosion of professional opportunity in dance, music, and other related theater activities. The school has an outstanding number of former students who have been successfully engaged in careers as dancers and musicians, as technicians in production, stagecraft, and wardrobe, and in instruction and arts administration. With this success, DTH challenged the classical dance world to review its stereotypes and revise its boundaries.[4]


The Arthur Mitchell Collection is held at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.[7] Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer, an exhibition celebrating his life and career, opened at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia on January 12, 2018. The exhibition Web site contains numerous images and documents from the collection, as well as a timeline of Mitchell's career, a repertory list for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and original essays.[8]


He died on September 19, 2018, from renal failure.[9]


Arthur Mitchell, NY (1998)

Mitchell received numerous awards in recognition of his groundbreaking work and achievements, including:

In addition, Mitchell received honorary doctorates from numerous leading universities, including University of North Carolina School of the Arts (1985),[19] Juilliard School (1990),[20] Hamilton College, Brown University (1996),[21] City College of New York, Harvard University,[22] The New School for Social Research, Williams College,[22] Yale University (2001),[23] Southern Methodist University (2009)[24] and Columbia University (2016).[25] He also received awards from the City of New York and community organizations.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Jennifer Dunning: Arthur Mitchell Is Dead at 84; Showed the Way for Black Dancers The New York Times
  2. ^ a b c "Arthur Mitchell". National Visionary Leadership Project.
  3. ^ House of Flowers
  4. ^ a b c d e Arthur Mitchell,; accessed March 27, 2016.
  5. ^ Arthur Mitchell, trailblazing US ballet dancer, dies at 84 The Guardian September 20, 2018
  6. ^ "Arthur Mitchell". Retrieved September 21, 2018.
  7. ^ Kourlas, Gia (May 15, 2015). "Columbia Acquires Archives of Arthur Mitchell, Dance Pioneer". The New York Times. New York City. Retrieved May 19, 2015.
  8. ^ "Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer". Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
  9. ^ "Arthur Mitchell, the 'Jackie Robinson' of ballet, dies at 84". Los Angeles Times. September 20, 2018.
  10. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  11. ^ "Catherine B. Reynolds to Chair Dance Theatre of Harlem Board". The Washington Post.
  12. ^ Arthur Mitchell profile Archived August 18, 2018, at the Wayback Machine,; accessed May 23, 2008.
  13. ^ Arthur Mitchell
  14. ^ Arthur Mitchell
  15. ^ Inductees Archived April 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Arthur Mitchell at The Heinz Awards
  17. ^ Elizabeth Alexander Receives Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship
  18. ^ "In Performance at the White House: Dance Theatre of Harlem" Honors Arthur Mitchell
  19. ^ Honorary Doctorates
  20. ^ Robert E. Toamsson: An opera star, an actor, a dance director and a Chicago Democrat whom some have called the best friend the arts have in Congress will receive honorary doctorates May 18 from the Juilliard School. The New York Times
  21. ^ Commencement 1996 / Brown will award nine honorary degrees at Commencement May 27
  22. ^ a b Remembering Arthur Mitchell, First Black Dancer to Join New York City Ballet
  23. ^ Honorary Doctorate to Arthur Mitchell
  24. ^ Arthur Mitchell / Doctor of Arts 2009 / Status: conferred
  25. ^ Arthur Mitchell to receive honorary degree from Columbia University 2016

Further reading[edit]

  • Miles, J. H., J. J. Davis, S. E. Ferguson-Roberts, and R. G. Giles (2001). Almanac of African American Heritage. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press.
  • Potter, J. (2002). African American Firsts. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.
  • Levine, Debra, "Talking with Dance Theatre of Harlem's co-founder Arthur Mitchell", Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2010

External links[edit]