PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Dance Theater of Harlem: An Homage to the Work of Arthur Mitchell

Episode Summary

Scholar-in-Residence Theresa Ruth Howard explores her own heritage in this personal look at Dance Theatre of Harlem, featuring the voices of founder Arthur Mitchell and current director Virginia Johnson—herself a founding member of Dance Theater of Harlem. Howard also danced with the company, was a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance and is the founder and curator of the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Theresa Ruth Howard, one of our Scholars-in-Residence, who will be your host for this conversation about the Dance Theater of Harlem and its illustrious founder, Arthur Mitchell.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: The founding of Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, New York City Ballet’s first Black principal dancer and internationally renown pedagog Karel Shook, was radical and revolutionary for its time and for the field. Together they created an organization that challenged the social and cultural norms by presenting a perfect blend of classical and Neo-Classical Ballet, styles from the African diaspora, and presenting African American culture and stories through the idiom of dance. Dance Theater of Harlem was, and is, what Arthur Mitchell called “Classically American”— in innovation and daring.

Dance Theatre of Harlem made its debut at Jacob’s Pillow in 1970. In July 2019, the company returned to celebrate their 50th anniversary. This homecoming was bittersweet as it was in the absence of Mr. Mitchell who sadly made his transition September 19th, 2018.  

Arthur Mitchell has always been a complex personality. His confidence, conviction, pride, and haughtiness were characteristics that were not meant to be possessed by Black men of his era. He was the antithesis of what both white and Black people thought Negros to be. He, like his contemporaries Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, was a Black man who was unbowed and unafraid to take, and hold space without asking permission. This is why I think that he was so highly misunderstood.

Yes, he was brash, bold, unapologetic, and demanding. But you have to understand, he was Becoming in an era when Black people were socially and legally seen as inferior. Hence, as a Black man in power, it was imperative that he broadcast and dictate how he expected to be treated in a way that his white counterparts didn’t have to. His boundaries were always amplified and crystal clear. It’s one of the reasons why everyone addressed him as “Mr. Mitchell.”

I’ve come to believe that his terseness was a protective forcefield that enabled him to withstand the onslaught of overt and covert racial prejudice that he encountered. His broad smile, that booming laugh, his charm, his overall countenance were his armor. 

In her 2007 PillowTalk, Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s current Artistic Director who was a founding Member and Prima Ballerina of the company, gives a perfect description of Mr. Mitchell.

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: He was the most and remains the most dynamic individual I've ever met in my life. It was like taking class with a hurricane. I mean, there was just, there was just so much energy and so much insistence and so much, you know, you, he would, he made us do what we had to do. He was fully committed. Certainly, by the time he’d, he’d started the the fledgling Dance Theater of Harlem, he was going to convince the world that Blacks could do Ballet and there was no other question. And if you didn't have the material, he was going to make you have the material. You're going to find it somewhere, it was, it was the most amazing, terrifying, exhausting, heartbreaking, uplifting, inspiring experience of my life. 

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: To fully understand Mr. Mitchell and his legacy of Dance Theater of Harlem, you have to understand the time in which he and it were established. Jim Crow was the law of the land when he was accepted into New York City Ballet in 1955, that same year, on December 1st, Rosa Parks refused to move the back of the bus. Almost a year later on November 14th in 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating was unconstitutional. That was the year that Mitchell was promoted to principal dancer. Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1957, and King marched on Washington in 1963, and his assassination in ‘69 was the catalyst for Dance Theater of Harlem’s founding that same year. 

Today it’s pretty well known that Balanchine’s original vision in 1948 was for a fully integrated New York City Ballet. But I’m not sure if people know that along with being a lover of all techniques and culture, Balanchine was particularly enamored with American and specifically Black culture. Really with blackness itself - the people, the dance, the music. Mr. Mitchell elaborates here in a 1997 Pillow Talk with Deborah Jowitt.

DEBORAH JOWITT: Did you ever find out why he really chose you? I mean, you would have worked with him in “House of Flowers,” why he invited you to join the company? 

ARTHUR MITCHELL: Well, many people do not realize that he had a long relationship with the Black community and Black dancers. He worked with Josephine Baker in 1928. Then he worked with Mrs. Dunham, Katherine Dunham in all the 30s. And he told me, “you see at that time we were so poor,” and Miss Dunham also tells the story. That the three of them lived in one room, Mr. Balanchine, herself, and....


ARTHUR MITCHELL: Vernon Duke the composer. And so there was this wonderful exchange of information. And what was interesting was many people do not realize, he would say, “well, we did episodes.” He told us, “go study with Martha so you’ll understand the source of the music, movement.” He said, “if you want beautiful hands, go take Spanish dancing.” He said, “if you want to use the back, take Dunham.” He always used all the different techniques at that particular time. And I think the big bond was that we all loved Fred Astaire, we all loved Bojangles and that sort of style. And if you just look at, I was just looking at some pictures of Mr. B. We never see him.... He’s always like this, you know, or like that. Utilizing the form of jazz, what we call jazz today. And part of the things that he wanted, he said, “dancing is moving through time and space, not a picture.”

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: Mr. Mitchell always spoke of both Balanchine and Kirsten as mentors, he regarded them almost as father figures. They were extremely supportive of the young man who at the height of his career decided to leave it and start his own school and company to benefit his community. However, just 13 years prior to founding Dance Theater of Harlem, he was a young Negro dancer studying Modern and Tap at Laguardia High School. Even though he had never taken Ballet, he caught the eye of Kirsten who gave him a scholarship.

ARTHUR MITCHELL: So I accepted the scholarship to The School of American Ballet. I didn't start classical Ballet until I was 18 years old, which is another thing. And, and everyone had heard about the blinking Kirsten. Oh, Mr. Kirsten’s in the building. And he came in at 6 foot something, and, and we would be disturbed if he was there. And so one day I was in class, and I came out of the studio, he said, I said “oh, you’re Mr. Kirsten,” I said. “I really want to thank you for giving me the scholarship.” He said, “you know, you’re a Negro.” And I said, “yes.” And he said, “George and I like you, and if we were to take you in the company you would have to be the equivalent of a single solo principal dancer,” I said, “you’re on.”

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: Now, this story tickles me for a number of reasons. I mean, I love how Kirsten had the hubris to inform Mr. Mitchell not only of his race but the burden that comes with it. 

In truth, the concept of Black people having to work and be twice as good as the most average white person is subliminally and therefore literally embedded into our psyche and encoded into our DNA. It is the unfortunate burden that melanin people bear. The fact that Mr. Mitchell was able to so glibly say “you’re on” speaks to how hungry he was for the opportunity to fail or succeed because opportunities were something that Blacks, in every aspect of life, were regularly denied. 

To illustrate the racial climate of the time, I’d like you to listen to Virginia Johnson talk about how she came to Ballet and her first Ballet teacher.

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: Well, you did mention Therrell Smith, who was my first teacher, and she was a tremendous, tremendous influence on me from the start. She was a Black woman from Washington, DC. Her father was a doctor so they had a good deal of, of money. So, Therrell decided that she wanted to be a dancer, that it was the thing that she loved more than anything else in the world. And she took it upon herself to get trained as a Ballet dancer at a time when Blacks, African Americans, Negros, as we were called at the time, were not welcomed in any Ballet studios. Famous teachers in my community such as Doris Jones and Claire Haywood would have the chance to study Ballet, but they had to study in the back room. They couldn't come into the studio with everyone else. And so Therrell was very much of that same era, she decided, “well, I'm not gonna let anybody stop me from being a dancer. I love this art form. I'm going to do it.” So she went up to New York whenever she could. There was no place in Washington where she could study, and she took herself off to Paris to study with Pria Bajenskia. Thank you. And she was a good friend of my mother's. And so she decided when she came back from Paris that she was going to open up a studio and create a place for all of her friends to have their children come and study dance. And so my mother being good friends sent her two daughters. On Saturday mornings I went to study Ballet with Therrell and it was, you know, it was wonderful. The thing is I fell in love with, with Ballet right from the start. I fell in love with the order of it. I fell in love with the music. I fell in love with the way that you could express so much about the wonder of the world by moving your body in a particular way. And I got a lot of that love from Therrell. She's the person who really made me feel like dancing was the thing to do.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: Now I love this story because it debunks the myth of the stereotype of Blacks as an impoverished monolith. Therrell Smith was from an upper-middle-class family with the means to send her to Paris to study and set her up with her own school. Johnson herself came from a middle-class family. It is important to note that most Black Ballet dancers are from working, middle, or upper-class families just like their white counterparts. This is as much true today as it was in the 1950’s. There’s historical evidence that around the country Blacks were thriving and engaging in the arts, specifically in Ballet. In New York, Ella Gordon School of Dance was founded in 1919, in 1926, Essie Marie Dorsey School of Dancing was founded in Philadelphia, Jones-Haywood School of Ballet was founded in 1941 in DC and is still training dancers today, and these are just a few. 

Here is Virginia speaking about a connection she and Mr. Mitchell shared with Doris Jones and Claire Haywood and speaking about what I call the shadow world of blackness.

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: Jones-Haywood was another all-Black school in Washington. It was actually a much bigger school, they would do big concerts, and they would have live music.  And it was, you know, Washington was a city in, in the 50s and 60s, probably up until 1965, probably, that had these very beautifully developed parallel societies. So that you had, you know, a, a white lower class and a Black lower class, and a white middle class and a Black middle class, and a white upper class and a Black upper class, you know, the whole nine yards it was there. And so of course, I lived over there in my parallel existence, kind of in the middle-class area but aspiring to be in the upper-class area, but you know, that, that whole existence. And Jones Haywood was a, was a, an important bastion of that parallel universe that existed. And Arthur Mitchell would had come down there, he’d been given money by the Ford Foundation to go and teach classes and work with the students at Jones Hayward school. And oh, this is too long a story. 

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: Oh, no, please, please. 

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: I guess it is part of my story. So, so I've had to, to live in these two worlds a lot. And at one point, Claire Haywood called Mary Day and said, “we're doing this performance of ‘Pocahontas,’ which is about, you know, Native American heritage.” Of course, they didn't call it Native American back then. “And we'd like Virginia to come and be part of our, our cast.” And so I got to work with Jones Haywood in a way that I hadn't been able to before. And when I got there, everybody was all abuzz about Arthur Mitchell and how wonderful he was. And what he was doing when he came down, and teach the classes, and made everything very exciting and gave a sense of someplace to grow for that, that community. So I'd never met him, but I certainly knew about him.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: With the Dance Theater of Harlem school, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Shook developed a model of creating dancers that exposed neighborhood children to Ballet, gave them access to good, low-cost training, and offered them an opportunity to become professional dancers. They pioneered the concept of what today is considered community outreach. This is a blueprint that could be utilized by every Ballet company striving to fill their pipelines with students of color. Listening to Mr. Mitchell’s methodology one can easily see how it could work in 1969 or 2019.

ARTHUR MITCHELL: I charge 50 cents a week so that anybody could come. I don't believe in that kind of charity, even if it’s just fifty cents it's not charity, they are participating, so that is instilling a sense of pride. And inside of two months, I had, like, 400 kids. In four months, I had 800 kids in the program. And I use a lot of sight. And we were in a garage. It was too hot, there was no air condition, I would leave all the side doors open. So all the games, the guys would walk by, I would say “hey fellas, how you doing?” I said, “play basketball?” “Hmm, yeah.” Well I said, “Well, you know, you're five foot ten and I can teach you how to jump someone who's six foot three.” “Really?” I said, “it’s called a demi plie.” “What’s a demi plie?”So, they said, I said, “come on in fellas.” And I was teaching all day at that particular time, I was Mr. Mitchell, and I would use things in their daily life. I said you know, a wall, stop. I said, “when you get to a corner do you turn or do you look?” He says, “I look.” “That’s called spotting.” “Oh!” And so I kept using sports as an analogy. And that's really one of the reasons why Dance Theater has been famous for its male dancers. And we've always had multitudes of boys and men. And I think that's primarily due also to the fact that the school started by a man.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: News of Mr. Mitchell’s company spread like wildfire through the Black dance community. Highly trained dancers flocked to Harlem and within a year he had a professional company and had choreographed a repertory for a full evening.  So that in 1970, only one year after starting the company, Dance Theater of Harlem was able to debut at Jacob’s Pillow. Here’s Mr. Mitchell speaking about that pioneering group of dancers.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: This company that I saw in 1970, this real fledgling company, were all of those dancers from your school? Did some of them come from other places? 

ARTHUR MITCHELL: No, well, two of them were from, were from The School of American Ballet. Walter Reins and Llanchie Stevenson were from The School of American Ballet. And Walter was like my son and Llanchie’s like my daughter. And actually, I had an audition for Mr. Balanchine and he didn’t take me. So I called John Cranko because John Cranko’s company. And Llanchie had been, she had beautiful feet and legs and she looked, was just Mr. Balanchine’s type, the line, the look, everything was there. So when I started Dance Theater, I naturally asked them to come with me, so they were my first two dancers. Then Virginia Johnson had been studying in Washington DC, and her family is quite brilliant. And she wanted to be, she was gonna become a schoolteacher because there was no hope for a Black dancer, particularly Earth-size, five foot eight, nine being a dancer. So she came to go to school at NYU and she read about us in the newspaper. And she said, “I'd like to audition.” I said, “fine.” And she came and it was a big load of breaking one down to say, “No, you have a gift, and you shouldn’t throw it away.”

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: We don’t have to wonder what those early days were like because Virginia shares what it felt like to be in the studio not just with Mr. Mitchell but the dancers who would eventually become the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

VIRGINIA JOHNSON: I think that that first experience of taking class with Arthur Mitchell and seeing, you know, it was the first time I was with a group of dancers, Black dancers, Negro dancers still, who all of us have been said no to. All of us had, you know, been in those studios in the back of the room, people saying, “Oh. oh you’re beautiful. Oh. oh, yeah, just do like. Oh, I have a part for you.” And we're over there in the corner, sweating and working hard and aspiring to be that person. And, you know, just being ignored. At least not kicked out, but just being ignored. So here we were, for the first time, there were six of us, you know, we were there together, and this man was giving us the opportunity to do this thing. It was an amazing experience.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: Because Mr. Mitchell was of a certain era and Blacks were held to a higher standard, he knew that in order to be taken seriously Dance Theater of Harlem dancers would have to be impeccable both on and off stage. Respectability politics played a large role in the way he comported himself, and the way he trained his dancers to carry themselves. He knew that showing up as an example was the only way to show people with small imaginations a world where Blacks were seen as equals. The Dance Theater of Harlem credo is “you represent something larger than yourself.”

ARTHUR MITCHELL: We have a dress code in the company, casual, planned casual, dressy, black-tie because these are things aside from the art form of dance, it’s we’re representing dance, not just Black dance, dance. The best way for me to do affirmative action is to put it on the stage. And you forget who and what they are, where they came from. You say, “now they made the magic, or they didn't make magic.” But, so that's how I choose. That's how the dancers come in. The ideal thing that I want to do, people say, “what is your future? Have you achieved what you wanted to do?” I said “no, ultimately I would like a company and it’s going to be called “Noah’s Art.” And I want two of everything from around the world and put this company together, and show people, regardless of race, class, creed or color, it’s the quality of what you do that’s most important.”

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: While he was working to show white people that Black people could do Ballet, he was also proving it to Blacks. Mr. Mitchell was crazy like a fox. He figured out a way to get both types of people into the theaters.

ARTHUR MITCHELL: And I try to put an evening together, like a good meal. You have an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. And also the eclecticism. I bring in all the different styles because part of our job is audience development. So you may have floated in as a novice who has never been to the theater before, or someone who likes jazz, or someone who likes modern, but there's something for everyone, but they will grow in the process when they leave the theater. “I never thought, oh! ah!” And that's the excitement, I think, about it. And that's what keeps it alive that I think very, very unique.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: The “mixed bill” programs that are so common today were less so then. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Mr. Mitchell’s vision of having a Black Ballet company, one that wore their flesh tone tights and shoes, that targeted neighborhood kids to train, engaged the community with open houses and diverse programming actually made the radical transformations to the field of Ballet in the 70’s that companies today are working to create. 

And here is where I believe there is a level of implicit bias at play when it comes to Mr. Mitchell and his legacy. It’s my belief that if Mr. Mitchell were a white man, he would be hailed as a genius, and Dance Theatre of Harlem would get its full recognition for its achievements, its contributions, and how it transformed and moved Ballet forward. And it would have its firm and rightful place in the canon alongside great Ballet companies of the world. Likewise, as Ballet companies seek to create diversity, equity, and inclusion, Dance Theater of Harlem should be an automatic go-to as a model and studied as an example of how to create diversity, equity, and inclusion in Ballet while maintaining a standard of excellence. Instead, because it has not been properly canonized and overlooked we have companies acting as if they’re creating the wheel when hiring one or two Black dancers. It’s something that should be corrected.

I will leave you with a quintessential Arthur Mitchell moment, one that sums up why he is an icon and an iconoclastic.

ARTHUR MITCHELL: Either you make the magic when you hit the stage, or you don’t make the magic when you hit the stage. Martha Graham, if she was a stripper she’d still be a star. There’s entertainment and then art. And then that drives me crazy because good entertainment is art. If I were a waiter, I could be an artist. 

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon - either online or onsite.