Arthur Mitchell
National Visionary

Born: March 27, 1934; Harlem, NY

Dancer, choreographer

Arthur Mitchell, one of the nation’s acclaimed ballet performers and choreographers, did not fit the profile of a world-renowned dance artist. He grew up poor in Harlem, New York and worked a number of odd jobs as a child to help support his family. Because his father was incarcerated at age 12, Mitchell became the primary provider for his family. He shined shoes, mopped floors, delivered newspapers and worked at a meat shop to help his family make ends meet.

While in junior high school, his guidance counselor singled him out during a performance and suggested he audition for the new New York City High School of the Performing Arts. Mitchell tried out and was accepted in 1949. While at the school, he focused primarily on modern dance and jazz. Mitchell once accompanied a friend to an audition for a part in “Four Saints and Three Acts.” The director spotted him and he earned a role in the performance, traveling with the troupe to Paris.

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Library of Congress
Showcase featureing
Carmen de Lavallade
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In 1952, Mitchell graduated from the School of the Arts and was awarded two scholarships from Benington College and the School of American Ballet which was affiliated with the New York City Ballet. Spurred on by the belief that blacks couldn’t perform ballet because their bodies with deemed “unfit for graceful movements,” Mitchell chose to attend American Ballet. In 1955, he debuted in the New York City Ballet Company’s “Fourth Movement of Western Symphony” choreographed by George Balanchine. Balanchine acted as a mentor to Mitchell and cast him in the principal role in “Agon” where he danced with a white dancer in a sensual performance. Audiences were either captivated or appalled by the show. Some called for Mitchell’s removal, but Balanchine threatened, “If Mitchell doesn’t dance, New York City Ballet doesn’t dance.” Mitchell continued in the principal role and it marked the first time a black dancer had the lead in a major ballet company. Mitchell starred in many other Balanchine productions and learned how to run a company through him.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
In 1968, Mitchell went to Brazil to found the National Ballet Company of Brazil. Upon hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King, he returned to the U.S. to take social action. He vowed to encourage the talents and skills of young African Americans by teaching ballet in Harlem. He founded the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969 with $25,000 of his own money. Later that year, he received $315,000 in a matching funds grant from the Ford Foundation.

The dance theater started with two teachers and 30 students. Mitchell initially charged 50 cents a week for as many classes as the students wanted to take. The company soon grew to 400 students. The group debuted at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971. The troupe continued to perform throughout the 1970’s. In 1981, it was the first black ballet company to perform at Covent Garden in London. It also traveled to the Soviet Union for a five-week, sold-out tour in 1988. In 1992, it had a six-week tour of South Africa, performing for integrated, sold-out audiences.

In 1993, Mitchell received a Kennedy Center Honor and in 1995, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the School of American Ballet.


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Carmen de Lavallade's Visionary Page (Dancer)

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/mitchellarthur