On today’s passing of the virtuoso ballerino, Arthur Mitchell, it’s important to understand the deeply-exclusionary history of American dance in order to appreciate the enormity of his legacy, how he re-charted the stars, and the tremendous debt that African American pioneers – particularly performers like myself – owe him.
My own milestone as the first black Rockette could have never happened without his monumental, major achievement.
In 1955, when George Balanchine signed Mitchell to the New York City Ballet, he became the first black ballerino to join a major ballet company in America.
Only a brilliant visionary like Balanchine could’ve gotten away with it, and only a talented artist like Mitchell could’ve met the rigors and demands!
As co-founder of the NYCB (with Lincoln Kirstein), Balanchine (photo above) signed Mitchell when black dancers weren’t hired no matter how good they were! It was nothing short of miraculous for African Americans and modern American dance.
Balanchine’s idea was pure audacity: instead of relegating Mitchell to minor roles, he cast him in leading principal roles such as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the thrilling pas de deux in “Agon”. It was so shocking that traditionalists weren’t able to wrap their heads around the enormity of it all. They simply had to accept it and move-on!
The Rockettes’s 1920s/1930s founding era was a very limited time for African Americans who wanted to dance, despite a certain dance renaissance such as The Cotton Club in Harlem and Josephine Baker in Paris. African Americans in that era were either shoehorned into white modern choreography or into African/Caribbean-inspired works. While chorus lines and dance troupes played to the strengths of black dancers, no one employed them with regularity. Nothing much changed until the 1950s with Mitchell’s triumph.
Throughout my Rockettes career, I thought of Mitchell often. He entered a traditional, centuries-old art form and redefined it to include black dancers. And although Balanchine recognized Mitchell’s talent, skill, and drive, he still had to shoulder discrimination, prejudice, and indignities daily.
After a 15-year career with the NYCB, Mitchell co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 with longtime acquaintance and ballet teacher, Karel Shook. As America’s first major black classical dance company, it was Mitchell’s gift to the neighborhood that nurtured his love of ballet.
Through his charisma, artistry, vitality, and presence, Mitchell connected with global audiences, and paved the way for inclusion and diversity in a traditional industry.
In a way, the evolution of American diversity owes a lot to modern dance, and Mitchell’s milestone was the start of all that.