On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
The program included performances by alum Alicia Graf Mack dancing Mitchell's Balm in Gilead, Calvin Royal III from American Ballet Theatre and Unity Phelan of New York City Ballet dancing Agon, and alum Paunika Jones and current DTH member Christopher McDaniel dancing Mitchell's The Greatest. Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and former board member Reginald Van Lee both paid their respects, with Lee reading the remarks of both presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
However, the most poignant moment of the service was delivered quite early but Mitchell's long-time friend Cicely Tyson. Ms. Tyson shared a rarefied glimpse of the man, the friend he was to her. She told of how they originally met on 74th street, as she walked home from the theater one night. He ritualistically became her nightly escort from 74th street (where he lived) to 78th, where she lived, every night making a stop for a pint of vanilla ice cream. "He ate a pint of ice cream every night of his life, every single night!"
Artistic director Virginia Johnson opened her remarks stated that this memorial was not the way it was supposed to be—the plan had been to celebrate DTH's 50th anniversary with Mr. Mitchell on stage.
The evening ended with a vocalist Remy Martin singing "My Way," after which attendees traversed uptown to 466 West 152nd street to the house that Mitchell built, to fellowship, filling it with ebullient laughter, and sharing reminiscences and nostalgia.