Arthur Mitchell RIP

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John F
Posts: 20601
Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Arthur Mitchell RIP

Post by John F » Wed Sep 19, 2018 11:14 pm

Arthur Mitchell, ‘Jackie Robinson’ of the ballet profession, dies at 84
By Sarah Halzack
September 19

Arthur Mitchell, who paved the way for other minority dancers by becoming one of the first black dancers to join a major ballet company and who helped start the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem, died Sept. 19 at a hospital in New York City. He was 84. The cause was renal failure, said a niece, Juli Mills-Ross.

Mr. Mitchell, who described himself as the Jackie Robinson of the ballet world, was hired by choreographer George Balanchine in 1955 to perform with the New York City Ballet and won over audiences and critics with his technical brilliance and charisma. Still, in an era when segregation was just beginning to crumble, his ascent to the upper echelon of dance met with many obstacles, from instructors who encouraged him to abandon ballet and take up other dance genres to shocked theatergoers who wrote letters expressing outrage about Mr. Mitchell being paired onstage with a white woman.

Balanchine refused to let the objections stifle Mr. Mitchell’s talent and created numerous leading roles for him, including the principal male part in the 1957 classic “Agon” and the character of Puck in 1962’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

[The pas de deux from "Agon," with Diana Adams. Balanchine accented his black and white casting with black and white costumes against a white background. Some of the choreography is quite erotic, no doubt further offending the racists in the audience.]

When television programs invited the New York City Ballet to perform but requested that Mr. Mitchell sit out, Balanchine rebuffed them, saying the troupe would dance with Mr. Mitchell or not at all.

After nearly 15 years with Balanchine’s company, Mr. Mitchell struck out on his own and in 1969 co-founded an all-black dance school that eventually grew to include an all-black professional company. He said the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a year earlier filled him with a sense of urgency to start the school.

“When Dance Theatre of Harlem started, there was still a fallacy that black people could not do classical ballet,” Mr. Mitchell told the Toronto Star in 1995. “People said to me, ‘Arthur, you’re the exception.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I had the opportunity.’ ”

Mr. Mitchell’s company has become one of the most sought-after dance ensembles in the world, performing everything from classical ballet to contemporary and jazz-inflected works.

Former Washington Post dance critic Alan Kriegsman once wrote, “Mr. Mitchell not only launched and empowered the careers of many excellent dancers but also changed forever the image of the African American dance professional.”

A host of financial problems in the 1990s and 2000s threatened the survival of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mr. Mitchell stepped down as the institution’s director in 2009, its 40th anniversary season, and announced that one of his former prima ballerinas, Virginia Johnson, would replace him.

At the 1993 ceremony in which Mr. Mitchell received the Kennedy Center Honors, Johnson said: “We’d all been turned down, told that there was no place for us. He gave us our dream, a chance to be measured by our movement and grace, and not by the color of our skin.” Mr. Mitchell was also recognized with a 1994 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often called the “genius grant,” and with the National Medal of Arts in 1995. ... 4fc319bf2f
John Francis

John F
Posts: 20601
Joined: Mon Mar 26, 2007 4:41 am
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Re: Arthur Mitchell RIP

Post by John F » Wed Sep 26, 2018 4:22 am

This piece, by the great dancer Allegra Kent, is one of the finest about Stravinsky's "Agon" and ballet choreography and dancing in general that I've read for a long time.

My Surprising Duet With Arthur Mitchell in Cold War Moscow
By Allegra Kent
Sept. 25, 2018

One of my most vivid memories of Arthur Mitchell, who died last week, is of dancing with him in Moscow in 1962. George Balanchine, New York City Ballet’s founding choreographer, had left the Soviet Union in the 1920s. And now he was returning for the first time to present his company of American dancers.

Tensions were high between our countries. We were deep in the Cold War, just a week before the Cuban Missile Crisis. On opening night, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was in the audience, and so were top party members.

Arthur and I were dancing in Balanchine’s “Agon,” with music by Igor Stravinsky, the last ballet on the program. Balanchine was nervous. The cast was nervous. But not Arthur. (Arthur was never nervous.) In the wings before our pas de deux, he could see I was jumping out of my skin. He said, “This is just a small town, Allegra.” What he said was so ludicrous that it calmed me down.

The reason for everybody’s nerves? “Agon,” created in 1957, had changed the course of choreography. It has form, but not conventional form, and strange innovations that had come out of Balanchine’s different way of hearing music and creating movement. Stravinsky’s music is rhythmically complex and difficult even for the dancers to count. (A conductor was sent ahead to rehearse the orchestra.) And “Agon” is a non-narrative ballet, costumed only in leotards and tights — not classical tutus and princely tunics. It was unlike anything that the Russian audience, so passionate about ballet, had seen before.

The most unusual part of “Agon” is the pas de deux, originally choreographed for Arthur and Diana Adams, a black man and a white woman; the man doesn’t just support the woman, he dances with her — they’re in concert. This racial mix was startling and different for American audiences at the time. And now we wondered how the Russian audience would react.

Arthur told me we should wait in the wings for two counts before our entrance. He wanted the audience members to see an empty stage, so they could breathe, and perhaps wonder what would happen next. I don’t remember him ever saying this to me before, in the many times we’d performed this pas de deux. But Arthur had an uncanny sense of stagecraft, more heightened in this crucial time and place.

We made our entrance and waited for the signal from the conductor. Then we tore across the stage in a long diagonal of dynamic lunges and turns, before settling into an odd design of calmness. Different hand patterns. My leg hooked around his shoulder. A series of “arrivings” somewhere, then unexpected momentary resolutions. Painterly patterns woven into the choreography. His white T-shirt and my black leotard. Dark skin tones and light skin tones.

After that came a moment when Arthur held my hand and led me around in a semicircle, before the next surprise in Balanchine’s choreography. Arthur had told me earlier what Mr. B had told him as he choreographed the piece: This move was like a trainer leading an elegant racehorse to its stall. He didn’t need to tell me this, but he chose to, because he wanted the pas de deux to be all it could be. He was a generous partner, and that gave me confidence. Not all partners were like that.

Our “Agon” pas de deux was sensual. Sculptural shapes would evolve in unpredictable ways, ending with a surprising beauty. It was like a puzzle (but not exactly). Arthur placed my pointed foot on the floor and indicated that my other my leg should go up — and then he was on the floor, supporting me with only his extended arm and hand: Was he leading me, or I leading him? We arrived together at the next configuration.

After our duet, the audience went wild. At the stage door when we walked out, people said our names — screamed our names (MEE-chell! Kent!) — and later they would have flowers for us. Arthur became one of their favorite performers.

At that moment, Arthur Mitchell was the only black principal dancer in the company — he was there not because of his race but because of his excellence. Balanchine was a visionary. When he first saw Arthur in 1955 and invited him into the company, he saw not an African-American dancer, but a dancer who could thrill an audience. Balanchine wanted dancers who could project something beyond technique. Your eyes were drawn to Arthur onstage. You had to watch him. Even if you knew the choreography, you didn’t know what was going to happen. Arthur was a star.

I sometimes danced with Arthur in Balanchine’s “Ivesiana” (1954), with music by Charles Ives, in the section called “In the Inn.” After a romp full of jazzy Balanchine inventions, the two dancers shake hands, then part, leaving the stage in different directions. That at first seems casual, but the music has a subtle change. It becomes wistful. We somehow know and feel that these two will never see each other again.

When I heard the news of Arthur’s death, I thought back to “In the Inn.” Arthur was an amazing person. And I had the great honor of dancing with him. ... allet.html
John Francis

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