Much has happened during the lapse, there is much good and great news to tell however the dance world, the ballet world and specifically the black ballet world has lost a pioneer. On September 19th 2018 Arthur Mitchell, the co-founder of Dance Theater of Harlem passed away. As a former member of DTH this was a personal, albeit complex loss for me. I met Mr. Mitchell when I was 8 years old in Philadelphia when I auditioned for the show Doin’ It. I was cast as one of the ballet children in the show’s second act and thus began my complicated story with him.
This E-zine is dedicated to the man, and his legacy. You can read more about my experiences in Dance Magazine article I was asked to contribute to honor him in addition in this E-zine you will find a heartfelt and poignant piece by former DTH principal ballerina Tai Jimenz from her eponymous blog, from theday.com Mary Biekart writes about how Mitchell and his Dance Theatre of Harlem changed the face of ballet, and finally a wonderful video of the making of DTH’s famous version of the Firebird which feature the larger than life Geoffrey Holder who created the ballet’s aesthetics the set design and costumes.
In my Dance Magazine article I did not just want it to be my voice, but I wanted to share what Mr. Mitchell meant and how he touched so many people so I culled a number of posts and statements from fellow DTH dancers, friends and fans. Here are some:
When the news of Mister’s passing broke, the outpouring on social media was overwhelming and showed the breadth and scope of Mr. Mitchell’s influence. We have culled a small sample of the honorings below:
He was very handsome and had an elegance about him. It was his signature, he put that on his dancers was in his company. He was one of his generation.
—Delores Browne, New York Negro Ballet
“You are not a line, not a phrase, not a paragraph, not a page…but a chapter in history.” A phrase spoken to the dancers and told by Arthur Mitchell to Charlie Rose after the tour to South Africa.
This man changed my life. Literally. I am who I am today, for the most part, because of his investment in me. He gave us the world through dance and encouraged us to do our part to make it a better place. There are no words to express the love and gratitude I have for Arthur Mitchell. Rest in peace dear Teacher, Mentor, Father. Thank you, thank you, thank you and God bless you.
—Donald Williams, former principal dancer, DTH
I am still trying to come to terms with losing the man who pushed me beyond my limits, which caused so many tears but lead me to become my best self. He became a Father figure to me not only in dance but my life. We met when I was just twelve years old and stayed connected throughout my dance career. We would touch base but when I was thinking about leaving ballet he convinced me to leave another company and to join DTH. I was so unsure but I took the chance. He was constantly a part of my life, always demanding me to step up and never allowing me to fall short … omg did he test me! I have so many truly beautiful moments in my life with Mr. M but my most cherished moment is when he stood in as the patriarch at my wedding. Thank you Mr. Mitchell for all you have done for ballet dancers of color and your legacy will continue, for you taught all your children well. I am already missing you so much !! I need to argue with you about ballet and life!! I love Mr. M!
—Andrea Long Naidu, former DTH principal dancer
Arthur Mitchell saw something in me that at the time I didn’t see in myself. I hadn’t yet known who I was as a dancer, and he helped to pull out parts of me that were raw in an effort to groom and polish my neo-classical dance. I attribute so much of my success in my professional dancing career to the time I spent at Dance Theatre of Harlem under his tutelage. I learned to embrace my brown tights and pointe shoes, my dance in my brown skin, and honoring those who blazed the trail before me. “You are representing something larger than yourself” was always a constant reminder. “Give, Take, Show!” —Mr. M.
—Naimah Kisoki, former DTH dancer
I just wanted to share a quick and true story. When I first started taking ballet classes I absolutely hated wearing tights and dance belts. Most of the time I simply refused. One day my ballet teacher Ms. Munez brought in this iconic picture of Mr. Mitchell in tights and said, “I want you to dress like this.” From that moment on, this was my ballet outfit. Rest In Peace, Arthur Mitchell.
—Robert Battle, artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The reason I am a ballerina is because of Arthur Mitchell. He found me when I was 14 years old (the year I started ballet), at the time I was really discouraged, and I didn’t see any potential. Mr. Mitchell invited me to NYC for my first summer intensive and CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER. He is THE reason I am still dancing. I didn’t know that a few weeks ago would be my last time working with him and being coached by him. I can’t even express how devastated I am. I feel honored that you invited me to come and rehearse with you. Thank you for changing the way people think about who gets to do ballet and creating an opportunity for a dancer like me. Thank you for checking on me now and then. Thank you for encouraging me and making me believe that I am good enough and that I should be doing more. That I have a place in this crazy ballet world. Rest In Peace. I wish I had more time with you.
—Nardia Boodoo, dancer, The Washington Ballet
To Arthur Mitchell, Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arturo, my heart is aching. You, my Mentor, my Brother, my Friend. I just don’t know what to say…,
Siempre, tu Taniasita. RIP.
Arturo, me duele el corazón. Tu, mi
Mentor, mi Hermano, mi Amigo. No se que decir…, Siempre, tu Taniasita. En Paz Descanses.
To Arthur Mitchell, Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arturo, my heart is aching. You, my Mentor, my Brother, my Friend. I just don’t know what to say…,
Always, your taniasita. RIP.
Arturo, my heart hurts. You, my
Mentor, my brother, my friend. I don’t know what to say…, always, your Taniasita.
—Tania J. Leon, conductor
Arthur Mitchell saw in me what I could be. He refined me and helped to shape the vision and direction for my career even the decision to accept my current position.
This is such a painful loss. He meant the world to me.
His last question to me sitting in his apartment this past summer was, “So now that you’re at this point, what are you going to do?”
He knew the answer, he just wanted to be sure that I knew I was ready.
—Charmaine Hunter, former DTH principal dancer
Today, I am overwhelmed by the loss of Arthur Mitchell and what he meant to me. So hard to put my feeling into words. I have started a list of the opportunities he provided to me and the thousands of people he touched. Please add to it!
Arthur Mitchell gave me the opportunity to:
Fulfill my dreams
Dance around the world
Meet the most amazing people
Work with beautiful and brilliantly talented artists
Create high art for the world to see
With the greatest choreographers in the world
To work with dance legends
To have lifelong friends
To push my personal limits
To be fearless
Relentless in the pursuit of perfection
To see who I am
What my strengths are
And my weaknesses
To be classically American
With Passion Power and Perfection
To give take show
With a sense of I am.
To represent something much larger than myself
To be a Firebird a Swan, a Princess and a Maiden
To turn on a dime
Hop on toe
Spread my wings
To use my third finger in more ways than one
To use the arts to ignite the mind
To build an exhibition, and tour with it for 9 years
To share the legacy of DTH
To manage one of the largest dance archives in the U.S.
—Judy Tyrus, former DTH principal dancer/museum curator
The man that said I could and would dance professionally because I’m an Aries and born the day before him. 🤣 I’m so grateful to have had studio time with Mr. Mitchell, to witness his contagious smile, and perform his ballets. Thank you, Mr. Mitchell for teaching me one of the biggest lessons in my career, one that I use as a daily mantra. “Just remember, you’re representing something larger than yourself.” 💜🙏🏾
—Raven Barkley, Charlotte Ballet
An inspiration to the world and a force to be reckoned with. What a phenomenal life lived. This highly dignified man gave me my first job in NYC 17 years ago and taught me what it was to represent something enormous. Thank you for letting a loudmouth non-dancing broad be part of your company and be enveloped by the family you created. You are forever part of my story, Mister.
—Liz Magnuson England, former DTH general manager
To say that this man transformed my life would be saying too little. Mister, you lit a flame inside of me that will never extinguish. Never have I ever wanted to work harder, be better, quicker, more alert, more captivating, than I did for you. I feel so blessed to be a part of the legacy you created. Thanks for all the joy and all the pain.
—Dionne Dadrinelle Figgins, former DTH dancer
Sitting in the studio before my class was about to start I get a call from my friend and colleague Kevin Thomas that Arthur Mitchell has passed away. So many different emotions hit me all at once, but I never expected to feel as if I lost my father!! Arthur Mitchell was a Hard task master and demanded Perfection from us not I only in The Studio and Stage, but in Life as well!! He would say, “You are representing something bigger/larger than yourself” so act accordingly! At times I hated and loved him but always respected him, and never forgot what he taught me. Thank you, Maestro, for shaping who I am today, not just as an Artist but as a Man. Rest in Paradise, Mr. Mitchell. One love and blessings always.
—Mark Burns, former DTH dancer
I started working in the business in 1991 as an apprentice at a sound shop in Mt. Vernon. In 1997 someone at the sound shop told me they were looking for a sound man at DTH to go on tour. I spent 8 years with DTH and loved every second. Mister showed me that Brown people can do this too in all aspects, from being on stage to behind the scenes. Just last night at an opening night party for Hamilton here in Boston, a couple of the cast members were dancing to some music but adding ballet to an R&B song, I ran over and told them “hi, hi, chin up…ahhhh thank you.” We laughed and they asked how do you know about chin up? I told them Arthur Mitchell would tell the dancers this all the time. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that you gave me, Mr. Mitchell.
—Anthony Jones, former sound technician for DTH
The first time I had seen or heard of DTH was in 1974. I had been taking ballet at the Houston Ballet Academy for 2 years and was ready to quit. I didn’t feel like it was for me. Once I saw an African-American ballerina for the first time, I realized I hadn’t seen one. Arthur Mitchell and DTH birthed dreams. Seeing the ballerina I looked up to all my years dancing, Virginia Johnson, gave me the connection to become a ballerina! It changed my life forever. I had to dance at that point, and the Firebird was my goal! I got to wear brown tights in the 1980s because DTH did and Ben Stevenson acknowledged the importance of it!!
—Lauren Anderson, former Houston Ballet principal dancer
When Mr. Mitchell would coach me, he would say, “Baxter you that boy from Texas, I like you…I see show business is in your blood…see you want to learn everything, the business and the stage.” He taught us that DTH was our home, 466 West 152nd street, being a somewhat parent to the new ones at that time. It was a way that everyone stayed disciplined. Mr. Mitchell had an eye for talent and it rubbed off on all of us. So much I can say….from Broadway to film he mentored, I was a DANCER from DTH, something about a DTH dancer you had that Mitchell Pride he would instill in everyone that crossed his path….which always kept me working in the business. I love show business. You will truly be missed. Thank you, Arthur Mitchell. May the grace of God always be with us.
—Minister Dwight Baxter
For years, while in the corps de ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I dreamed of one day being the ballerina to get Mr. Mitchell from the wings, and when that moment finally came, it was a cherished honor, a moment when all our disagreements vanished, and I was so was so proud to receive his knowing gaze.
—Tai Jimenez, former DTH principal dancer
When I think of all the remarkable things Arthur Mitchell did during a time in history when the odds were against him, it gives me reason to pause. Quite simply, Arthur Mitchell changed the world! Thinking how several companies are now creating tights, ballet shoes, and character shoes which complement and enhance the line and look of legs of dancers of color can be directly attributed to his insistence that DTH dancers dyed their tights and shoes to match their skin tones. Mr. Mitchell was an innovator, an architect, if you will, and definitely someone who followed the beat of his own drum. And he let nothing get in the way of what he wanted to achieve. I was leaving my position as the director of a well-known school in NYC after a particularly tumultuous tenure. Mr. Mitchell called and told me to come and see him. Notice I said “told” and not “asked”! He wanted to know what happened, and I told him. He looked at me with that glint in his eye and said, “You know, people had forgotten that school existed until you came along. Your work there is done! It’s time for a bigger dream. But no matter how badly you feel about all of the work you have done there and it not having been appreciated, you WILL NOT let them steal your spirit!” Needless to say, I was a puddle of tears…
—Maurice Brandon Curry, executive artistic director at Eglevsky Ballet
Arthur Mitchell’s undeniable presence, charisma, and his sparkling smile will forever remain ingrained in my memory. He was bold and brave enough to challenge and change perceptions, always with beauty and dignity. As a master coach, he poured so much into his dancers, meticulously teaching more than performance techniques, but how to represent something larger than ourselves with a sense of empowered purpose. I will miss him deeply, gratefully walking the path that he dedicated his life to pave.
—Alicia Graf Mack, former DTH dancer, director of dance at The Juilliard School
I studied at DTH as a child, and two weeks after I graduated college, I went back, and eventually Mr. Mitchell asked me to join the company. Was he easy to work for? No. Unreasonable? Often. Hurt my feelings? Constantly. But I soon learned that when he was hard on you it was because he saw something in you that he was trying to develop.
The life lessons he taught us in that studio on 152nd St, or on any given stage across the globe, influenced how I move in the world to this day. He told a group of us on our first international tour that we looked like “refugees,” which taught me to always look presentable no matter where I was going. He told us “don’t believe your press” which has allowed me to not take myself too seriously whether I’m in a season of great success or great challenges. The way I physically walk to this day, with “Zah,” is a direct result of the training I received under his tutelage. And his mantra, “You represent something greater than yourself,” instilled in all of us the ability to move through life with grace, dignity, and discipline.
And, as this picture captures, he had a wicked sense of humor, infectious laugh, and could dish the dirt with the best of them.
—Valencia Yearwood, former DTH dancer/actress
Arthur Mitchell . . . Thank you for your dream to change the world’s view of black classical ballerinas and male dancers. By letting me into your dream, you allowed me to live my dream of performing around the world before royalty and everyday folks; to learn from great ballerinas all around me; to gain lifelong friends-family; to live life with the soundtrack emanating from DTH’s live pianists; to show children here and abroad that all dreams are worthy and attainable; to embody the ideal of excellence no matter where one is; and to show that the arts are one of—if not THE—best way to reveal commonality among us all and break down barriers. I am overwhelmed with sadness, love, gratitude and awe for you. Thank you, thank you, thank you . . .
—Willow Sanchez, former DTH dancer/lawyer
Visionary, teacher, driven, inspiring, fearless, trailblazer. The impact he made in the lives he came in contact with will be remembered. The people/dancers/talent I met along the way during my time at DTH unparalleled. So thankful for Arthur Mitchell. The vision for black dancers, black ballerinas in particular must continue.
—Linda Swayze, former DTH dancer