Arthur Mitchell & Bessie

October 8, 2014

For most of the New York dance community, we think of The Bessies as our Academy Awards to honor the most outstanding work of the past year. But for Arthur Mitchell, who will receive the Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance later this month, this tradition is about Bessie Schonberg herself, the influential modern choreographer and teacher for whom the awards are named.  


What was Bessie’s relationship with Dance Theatre of Harlem?

In the mid-80s, DTH got a grant to establish a choreographic workshop under Bessie. The participants included Ron Brown, Donald Byrd, Neta Pulvermacher. Later, Bessie became part of our school’s faculty and taught composition. She brought the company to another level choreographically. She was right there as we were trying to encourage modern choreographers to choreograph ballet—people like Garth Fagan and David Gordon. No one else was doing that at the time.


What was she like as a teacher?

Bessie was such a gentle, knowing person. I learned about intention in choreography from her—and to make sure my dancers understood my intention so they knew what I wanted, not just the steps. That way, everyone had input as an artist. I believe the dancers’ personal involvement was what made DTH special. 


Looking back as you receieve this Lifetime Achievement Award, if you had to pick one highlight of your career, what would it be?

When Balanchine did Agon. To be in the collaboration with Mr. Stravinsky and Balanchine with a piece that’s still quite relevant today, I was very proud of that. And of course, the formulation of Dance Theatre in 1969. 


How have you seen the dance world change since then?

Years ago, one was either a modern, jazz, tap or ballet dancer. Now you have to be a great dance artist and use all the different styles. This is why The Bessies are so important to honor her. She took the major step of bringing together ballet and modern. I hope I’m doing well by her. 


The 2014 Bessie Awards will take place at New York City’s Apollo Theater on October 20. For a full list of nominees, click