In 1955, he became the first African-American male dancer to become a permanent member of a major ballet company, in his case, the School of American Ballet. In 1969, Arthur Mitchell co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Now forty years old, Dance Theatre has grown into a multicultural institution of world renown. He talked about dance, art and life.
How would you compare the Dance Theatre of Harlem to the long tradition of Russian ballet?
You must understand Mister Balanchine was my teacher and mentor. In 1986, we were the last company to tour what was formally the USSR. And we were formally inducted into the history of the Russian Ballet. They said “You are Russian because all your teachers are Russian.” And so, if you go to the Kirov Museum, we have a wall in the museum carrying on the legacy. I am a great fan of Mister Balanchine because what he did in Russia has extended the classical vocabulary into what we now call neo-classic. He choreographed primarily for the kinetic energy and the speed of the American dancer. What he was greatly influence by is Jazz. And that’s why many times you’ll see his ballets danced by traditional companies, the steps are correct, but the energy it’s coming from is not right. It doesn’t have the freedom of using the pelvis and the back to give it that Jazz feeling. He felt that dancing was a movement through time and space not just making a pose. It’s how you get into the step and out of the step that is the dance part.
Have you faced any prejudice from black communities because of your choice to be a ballet dancer?
No, no, no. It’s interesting because now as we travel around the world, every third world country, and I really don’t like that phrase because all these countries are older than us, but they all want to be like Dance Theatre. “We want to be like you,” they say, “because we’ve been under the rule of other countries that we want to have our expression, not throwing away the technique.” They say, “You are our role model.” When we went to South Africa during the last year of Apartheid, they said when the curtains went down Mister Mandela sat there and he did not move. He said, “I do not want this to end.” They brought him back stage and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “I cannot thank you enough for coming to my country at this time. For three hours I have sat in the theatre and I have forgotten all of my troubles.” We broke the 30-year cultural ban by going there, and art can do that. Artists can do and go and be something that a politician and a businessman often cannot do.
What advice would you give to a young man interested in ballet but afraid of the negative reaction he might receive from family and friends?
When the young basketball players were coming by, I’d say to them, “How tall are you?” He’d say, “5’10.” I’d say, “I can teach you to out jump someone who is 6’3” – it’s called the Demi-plie – the more you bend the higher you can jump.” So they started learning it. Now all the athletes in America are doing it. They don’t call it ballet, but those are ballet exercises. Like Michael Jordan, he is famous for his 360 and dunk. I tell the boys, “I can teach you to do a 720 and dunk – the double tour en l’air.” And then I show them how to jump, how to land so they don’t hurt themselves, how to warm themselves up properly. Now I started this in 1968, doing these athletic workshops, and I’d always ask the coach, “Give me the second string.” When I got through with them they were better than the first string. We got the swimming team and the coach was telling them to swim to the end of the pool and then kick off to go back. I said, “Pardon me, sir, when you say kick, you just bring your leg back. Why don’t you tell them to push off? And by pushing, they gain seconds. Torvill and Dean, look what they did with ice skating, they took classical ballet every day.
What do you consider to have been the greatest obstacle in your career and how did you overcome it?
It still is raising money. We don’t have government subsidy as you have in Great Britain. And so you have to go out and raise money all the time when my job and love is teaching and working with children.
Is racism still an issue within the classical arts today?
Dance Theatre has been accepted. We’re beloved in Russia, Africa, Asia, Japan, Australia, Europe, London; it’s just unbelievable, everywhere we go people love the company. We’re 35-years old this year. But, there is not the multitude of minority dancers dancing in major companies around the world. But then you must understand that for every one hundred Caucasian kids that study dance only ten are going to make it. So if you have only ten minority dancers studying only one will make it. In many parts of the Third World the Arts are something you do for social graces, not as a career, but I think that stereotypical concept is slowly being broken down.
So are there any ambitions left?
Oh God, yes. When you have a dream or a concept or an idea, if it’s accomplished then there’s nothing else. The first step was to disprove the notion that blacks couldn’t do classical ballet. And they kept telling me that I was an exception. I said, “No, I had the opportunity.” So rather than argue, I started the school. Then, when I stopped dancing, there were no role models. Now I’m talking about 55-years ago, I’ll be seventy years old this month. What I want to do now: I want every country to sponsor two dancers to come into my company, and the company is going to be called, Noah’s Art. This company will tour the world and show people regardless of race, class, creed or colour, it’s the quality of what you do that’s most important. And then, if you have the ability to make the magic on the stage, that’s the icing on the cake.