Any other time, a celebration of the legacy of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s visionary founder Arthur Mitchell, on the second anniversary of his passing, would have been a star-studded live event. But, these are extraordinary times so in the year of the COVID pandemic, “Arthur Mitchell: A Day of Reflection” aired on DTH’s YouTube Channel Saturday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m. EDT/3 p.m. PDT. The hundreds who tuned in were encouraged to celebrate this extraordinary man by sharing pictures, videos and stories of Mitchell on social media using the hashtag #ArthurMitchell. Meanwhile, past and present company artists, members of the DTH family, shared their thoughts.
Noting that so many young Black dancers broke through racial barriers to flourish in an artform where they had once been excluded, Gayle McKinney, DTH’s first Ballet Mistress, spoke of the man who, with master ballet teacher Karel Shook, started this historic institution. “Arthur Mitchell was a visionary who proved to the world that people of color could succeed in the ballet art form.”
When asked to describe Mitchell in one word, former company artist Donald Williams said without skipping a beat: “Tenacity.” Why? Simple. “Telling Arthur Mitchell he couldn’t do something merely prompted him to prove you wrong. For starters he personally disproved the myth that Black bodies were unsuited to do classical ballet. First, by joining New York City Ballet, then excelling and becoming a principal dancer with that company. When they said, ‘Arthur Mitchell you’re the exception to the rule, he started a ballet company, a predominantly Black ballet company based in Harlem. This company, through his determination and demand for excellence and, yes, tenacity, became a world-renowned ballet company.”
Other dancers shared their thoughts during this video tribute, dancers for whom DTH was training ground, performance platform and, yes, launchpad as some spread their wings and moved on to ballet companies whose eyes had been opened, thanks to Mitchell and DTH, to the magnificent beauty of Black and Brown ballet dancers.
American Ballet Theatre Principal Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first Black ballerina to hold that top position in ABT’s 75 year history, shared her gratitude for Mitchell’s trailblazing and “fearless” commitment to the mission of making a way out of no way for Blacks in ballet. “Mitchell’s presence, career and words changed the trajectory of my career. Having him champion me and guide me gave me purpose beyond what I saw possible,” Copeland said.
Ashley Nicole Murphy, former DTH artist and current member of the Washington Ballet, shared, “I think of him whenever I need to remember why I do what I do, why the struggle is worth it, and why I can never settle for anything less than my best.”
Williams (DTH artist, 1977-1983, and principal dancer, 1983-2004) says not a day passes that he doesn’t think of Mitchell with tremendous gratitude: “He made a positive difference in so many of our lives. He made the world realize that being both Black and a ballet dancer were not necessarily mutually exclusive. He proved Black Lives Matter by giving so many of them purpose.”
Also featured in the online tribute on this second anniversary of Mitchell’s passing were snippets of the 2018 Riverside Church Tribute to Mitchell including the moving remembrance by his close friend the iconic actress Cicely Tyson. Another highlight of that special occasion was the poignant performance of Mitchell’s “Balm in Gilead,” by Alicia Graf Mack, who is both a former member of DTH and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and, currently, the first Black director of the Juilliard Dance Department. Like so many in the DTH family her career reflects the profound impact of Mitchell’s legacy.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since Arthur Mitchell passed,” said company Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem Virginia Johnson. “So many things have happened that were unexpected, but you know AM is with us always—his spirit, his vision. It’s a very special moment for us at DTH and it’s important today to remember this incredibly dynamic individual who created DTH and who created futures for so many of us who never thought we would have them in this art form.” Explaining that Mitchell’s legacy involves that and so much more, Johnson added that he also created a way for us to see ballet in a new light. “Arthur Mitchell’s impact on the world continues. It is my joy to continue that work and to share with so many people his idea of what is possible.”
Thanking viewers, DTH Executive Director Anna Glass said, “We knew that it was our job to pick up the mantle of an extraordinary man. His legacy is huge. His vision, large. His shoes were big. But we are all gathering today to remind ourselves that ballet belongs to everyone.”
The tribute can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGQ6mYBmdNY.