Arthur Mitchell to be Celebrated by Dance Theatre of Harlem

Arthur Mitchell to be Celebrated by Dance Theatre of Harlem

Update: Those unable to attend the memorial for Arthur Mitchell can will be livestream the celebration here.

When dancer Arthur Mitchell laid the groundwork for what would become the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem in the summer of 1968, he started with just 30 students.

But in a matter of a couple months, the number of ballet hopefuls rose from just a little over two dozen to 400, then 800 and so on until Mitchell turned a hot, tin-roofed garage in Harlem into an incubator for future generations of black classical ballet stars.

Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem company at Church of the Master. Photo: Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives.

Now in its 50th year, Dance Theatre will celebrate the life of Mitchell, who passed away this September, with a memorial service on Dec. 3 at Riverside Church.

Free and open to the public, the evening will feature performances by current and past company members, the Dance Theatre of Harlem School students and special guests, in addition to remarks from prominent Dance Theatre community members. A community gathering at Dance Theatre of Harlem will follow.

Arthur Mitchell (foreground) and company at the Guggenheim. Photographer: Martha Swope.

Before Mitchell founded Dance Theatre, he was one of ballet’s most beloved dancers with the New York City Ballet.

Mitchell’s tenure at NYCB coincided with the creation of some of George Balanchine’s most famous works, including “Agon.” Widely considered to be one of his masterpieces, Balanchine created the central pas de deux on Mitchell and white dancer Diana Adams — a pairing that deliberately called attention to race.

Arthur Mitchell and Nelson Mandela. Photographer: Marbeth.

“Do you know what it took for Balanchine to put me, a black man, on stage with a white woman?,” said Mitchell in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2010. “This was 1957, before civil rights. He showed me how to take her [holding her delicately by the wrist]. He said, ‘put your hand on top.’ The skin colors were part of the choreography. He saw what was going to happen in the world and put it on stage.”

To celebrate the life of Mitchell and the anniversary of Dance Theatre, we’ve compiled five of our favorite videos about the company and its founder below.

Top Image: Arthur Mitchell received the Sir Laurence Olivier Award for "Creole Giselle" in London. Photo: Dance Theatre of Harlem Archive.