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Pioneer Arthur Mitchell donates archives to Columbia

Zita Allen | 11/13/2015, 4:22 p.m.
Arthur Mitchell, the pioneering ballet dancer, artistic director and choreographer who, in the 1950s, became the first African-American principal dancer ...
Arthur Mitchell Contributed

Arthur Mitchell, the pioneering ballet dancer, artistic director and choreographer who, in the 1950s, became the first African-American principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, was celebrated at Columbia University Oct. 27 and 28.

The occasion marked Mitchell’s donation to Columbia University of his archive—a treasure trove of photographs, posters, clippings and correspondence with the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Josephine Baker, Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen de Lavallade, David Dinkins, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela. The archive also includes film footage and other material documenting an amazing life, a stellar career and the impact of a man whose life has helped change America’s cultural landscape.

A recent two-day event titled “The Arthur Mitchell Project Symposium“ opened with a retrospective of the career of this self-described “political activist through dance.” The centerpiece was a conversation between Mitchell and friends, including icon de Lavallade, former NYCB ballerinas Barnard College dance professor Allegra Kent and Kaye Mazzo, a founding member of the George Balanchine Trust. Barnard professor and Dance Department Co-Chair Lynn Garafola moderated as Mitchell recalled how, when he was a young teen, dancer Mary Hinkson introduced him to the Katherine Dunham School, where future mentor and DTH co-founder Karel Shook taught ballet.

Mitchell also expressed heartfelt thanks to NYCB’s founder and choreographer George Balanchine and co-founder Lincoln Kirstein when recalling his historic admission to NYCB and, years later, Balanchine’s generous gift of his own masterpieces and more to Mitchell’s fledgling company. Punctuating these and other moments were film clips of Mitchell partnering Hinkson in Balanchine’s “Figure in a Carpet” or dancing with de Lavallade in Donald McKayle’s classic “Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder.” There was also a clip of Mitchell partnering with Allegra Kent in the “Agon” pas de deux that Southern TV stations refused to air because it featured a Black man performing with a white woman.

Sprinkled throughout the two-day event were similar historic facts, personal anecdotes and analytical insights that shed light on Mitchell’s illustrious career and his tremendous impact on American arts and culture.

Tuesday, Oct. 27, three panel discussions also hinted at the key role Mitchell’s archives would play in incorporating African-Americans’ stories and impact into the history of ballet. One panel tackled the role Mitchell and DTH played in creating opportunities for other artists of color. Moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, author and Columbia University professor Margo Jefferson, that panel included former DTH principle Karen Brown, one of the few Black women to serve as artistic director of an American ballet company (Oakland Ballet); Karyn Collins, Rutgers University journalism professor and dance critic; Robert Garland, DTH choreographer and former principal; Tania Leon, DTH founding music director and composer; and Vernon Ross, former DTH wardrobe master and designer, now currently with the Metropolitan Opera and Radio City Music Hall.

Another panel looked at the importance of Mitchell’s creation of an institution that included not only the company but also a school and an outreach component. Moderated by Columbia professor of English and comparative literature Brent Hayes Edwards, it included former DTH principal ballerina and current Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post critic Sarah L. Kaufman, Florida State University professor and former DTH dancer Anjali Austin and Garafola.