AKA Arthur Adam Mitchell, Jr.
Birthplace: New York City
Location of death: Manhattan, NY
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Occupation: Dancer, Choreographer
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Dance Theater of Harlem
Arthur Mitchell was 12 when his father abandoned his family, and as a teen he worked two jobs to help his mother feed his four siblings. He later was a member of two street gangs, but tap danced his way out of trouble and into New York's High School for the Performing Arts. There, and later at the School of American Ballet, the parents of female classmates often complained when Mitchell danced opposite white ballerinas. Still, he was too good to be held back, and in 1955 he became the first black dancer for the New York City Ballet, after asking Director George Balanchine not to issue a "Negro breaks color barrier" press release à la Jackie Robinson, who had been major league baseball's first Negro almost a decade before. In the New York Times review of his first lead role, 1955's Western Symphony, Mitchell's presence was described as "novelty casting", but in general the reviews were good and his dancing was never less than excellent. By 1960 he was the first black principal dancer for a major ballet company.
In the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination, Mitchell wanted to do something in dance for African-Americans, and with Karel Shook he founded the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969, in the crowded basement of a local church. It sounds preposterous now, but even then ballet experts commonly presumed that the Negro body was simply unsuitable for classical dance, so the few black professional dancers instead specialized in modern dance, ethnic stylings, or Broadway show work. DTH had 200 students on its first day, 800 in its first year, and Mitchell trained them classically, and far more quickly than experts thought possible. Especially in its early years, it was not uncommon for the Theater's featured dancers to have never performed ballet before walking into Mitchell's classes in their late teens. His goal, accomplished more successfully than even Mitchell might have expected, was to make himself less of a novelty, by making blacks an ordinary presence in classical dance.
Father: Arthur Adam Mitchell (building superintendent)
Mother: Willie Mae Hearns
High School: High School for the Performing Arts, New York City (1952)
Conservatory: Katherine Dunham School of Dance
Conservatory: School of American Ballet
Dance Theater of Harlem Founder & Director (1969-)
New York City Ballet Dancer (1955-70)
National Dance Museum Hall of Fame (1998)
National Medal of Arts 1995
Kennedy Center Honor 1993
Laurence Olivier Theatre Award 1984 (for Creole Giselle)
MacArthur Fellowship 1981
National Endowment for the Arts Council Member
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq (30-Sep-2013) · Himself
The Day the Fish Came Out (2-Oct-1967)
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