Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.
Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives
Mitchell in 1987, announcing DTH's tour of the Soviet Union. Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown, Courtesy DM Archives
As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.
It would have been enough to earn Mitchell's place in the history books, but he didn't stop there. In 1969, he struck out with Karel Shook to form Dance Theatre of Harlem. His mission: Change the perception that black dancers don't belong in ballet. Despite numerous financial scares, and a brief shut down and restructuring, DTH is still carrying out that mission. It has been under the direction of Virginia Johnson since 2009, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
Throughout his career, Mitchell received numerous accolades, including a Dance Magazine Award (1975), a Kennedy Center Honor (1993), a MacArthur "genius" grant (1994) and the National Medal of the Arts (1995).
Mitchell teaching. Photo courtesy DM Archives
In January, we asked Mitchell whether the dance world had caught up to his dreams for it. He told us, "Name all the companies in America. How many have a leading African-American ballerina? There's only one in a major company, that's Misty Copeland in American Ballet Theatre. There's still work to be done."