Dance Theatre of Harlem Celebrates its 50th in Sadness Following Death of Founder Arthur Mitchell
By Kiley Roache
Dancers moved down into plies at the barre and then floated up to arabesques, as a pianist provided music as airy as the sun-filled studio on West 152nd Street. The dancers’ mood, though, was dark.
Dance Theatre of Harlem had learned the day before that its founder, Arthur Mitchell, had died at 84.
Still, they pushed for the technical perfection Mitchell always demanded. And despite the loss, they danced on.
“It’s so hard to believe that he’s gone,” said Virginia Johnson, the company’s artistic director and former prima ballerina. “But in this moment his legacy is to make sure that people understand that ballet does belong to everyone, and to make sure that people understand that ballet does belong in the 21st Century.”
Mitchell, a MacArthur “genius” and National Medal of Arts recipient, was the first black principal dancer of a major ballet company, the New York City Ballet. Following the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he established the trailblazing and critically acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem to create opportunities for dancers of all ethnicities.
Mitchell’s death on Sept. 19 came as the school and company he created celebrates its 50thanniversary.
“I am definitely reflecting on all the things that Arthur Mitchell gave me as an artist,” Robert Garland, resident choreographer and school director, said about his approach to the anniversary, a two-year celebration.
“Very few dance companies reach the age of 50,” said Lynn Garafola, a dance historian at Barnard College, who curated an exhibit on Mitchell’s career last winter at Columbia University. “This is really a remarkable anniversary for DTH.”
It was not always clear that the group would reach such a milestone. In the 2000s, financial struggles forced the ballet company to take an eight-year hiatus.
Mitchell founded the company and school with Karel Shook in 1968 to make ballet accessible to all children, particularly in his native Harlem.
The school started in a garage, then moved to a church basement.
“In the garage they built a dance floor and they put up some fake mirrors,” said Johnson. “Arthur Mitchell would throw open the garage doors and the community would walk by and see these people doing this classical ballet.”
It was his way of exposing the community to classical dance and attracting students. By 1969, Dance Theatre had 500 young students, Garland said. In 1971, it added a professional company.
At the time, the ballet world discriminated against anyone who was not white. Many black dancers trained extensively in ballet, Garafola said, but “the pipeline into the professional world seemed to be blocked.”
Even Johnson was told she would never be a ballerina, despite studying ballet throughout her life. She arrived in New York and met Mitchell just in time.
“For such a long time people imagined this art form was one that was about everyone looking exactly the same,” Johnson said. “It’s really about everybody moving together as one. But you don’t need to be identical in face and feature to make that happen.”
As Dance Theatre grew, it continued to inspire generations of dancers. Garland first saw ballet when he attended its performance in Philadelphia at 10; he later became a principal dancer with the company.
The company performed classical 19th Century ballets like “Giselle,” set by Mitchell in antebellum Louisiana. It also built a strong repertory of ballets by George Balanchine, who created a number of roles for Mitchell at City Ballet.
Over the years, the company has toured the world, visiting the Soviet Union before it fell and South Africa shortly after apartheid ended. It performed at City Center and Lincoln Center, as well as at the White House.
“The dancers were aware from the first that they were doing something historic, that this was something really important, and that they were engaged in something that was larger than themselves and was larger than just being a ballet dancer,” said Garafola. “That was something that was inculcated in them by Arthur Mitchell.”
While DTH’s school has operated continuously for half a decade, the professional ensemble was forced to take a break in 2004, after entering what artistic director Virginia Johnson once called “a valley of debt.”
Even storied companies often face “an incredibly tight financial situation,” said Thomas Smith, an economist at Emory University who studies economics and the arts.
He wasn’t surprised that a dance company might need a hiatus.
“It’s not shocking. I’m always shocked when a company said they made it through the year and didn’t worry about money,” he said.
The organization wobbled a bit as it regained financial footing. Public filings from 2012 to 2014 showed the company’s expenses exceeding its income by $600,000 to $800,000 each year. But the company was in the black again in 2015 and 2016, when it had close to $1 million in net income.
The company returned in 2012 at a fraction of its former size, decreasing from 44 dancers to 18. The company now has 17 dancers.
The smaller size meant the company couldn’t perform works like “Firebird,” “Giselle” or “Dougla,” some of its most acclaimed productions. The company recently partnered with Collage Dance Collective from Memphis to revive “Dougla,” the late Geoffrey Holder’s modern African-Indian ballet. The City Center performance marked the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.
Garland is at work on a new ballet for the April season that he says will reflect the legacy of Arthur Mitchell, who will honored by the company and others at a memorial this fall.
(Photos by Kiley Roache). Originally published on Theuptowner.org, a project of Columbia Journalism School.