Ballet Trailblazer Arthur Mitchell Has Died
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.
Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives
As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.
Mitchell in 1987, announcing DTH's tour of the Soviet Union. Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown, Courtesy DM Archives
It would have been enough to earn Mitchell's place in the history books, but he didn't stop there. In 1969, he struck out with Karel Shook to form Dance Theatre of Harlem. His mission: Change the perception that black dancers don't belong in ballet. Despite numerous financial scares, and a brief shut down and restructuring, DTH is still carrying out that mission. It has been under the direction of Virginia Johnson since 2009, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
Throughout his career, Mitchell received numerous accolades, including a Dance Magazine Award (1975), a Kennedy Center Honor (1993), a MacArthur "genius" grant (1994) and the National Medal of the Arts (1995).
Mitchell teaching. Photo courtesy DM Archives
In January, we asked Mitchell whether the dance world had caught up to his dreams for it. He told us, "Name all the companies in America. How many have a leading African-American ballerina? There's only one in a major company, that's Misty Copeland in American Ballet Theatre. There's still work to be done."
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Michele Byrd-McPhee's uncle was a DJ for the local black radio station in Philadelphia, where she was born. As a kid she was always dancing to the latest music, including a new form of powerful poetry laid over pulsing beats that was the beginning of what we now call hip hop.
Byrd-McPhee became enamored of the form and went on to a career as a hip-hop dancer and choreographer, eventually founding the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival and directing the New York City chapter of Everybody Dance Now!. Over the decades, she has experienced hip hop's growth from its roots in the black community into a global phenomenon—a trajectory she views with both pride and caution.
On one hand, the popularity of hip hop has "made a global impact," says Byrd-McPhee. "It's provided a voice for so many people around the world." The downside is "it's used globally in ways that the people who made the culture don't benefit from it."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
Every dancer knows there's as much magic taking place backstage as there is in what the audience sees onstage. Behind the scenes, it takes a village, says American Ballet Theatre's wig and makeup supervisor, Rena Most. With wig and makeup preparations happening in a studio of their own as the dancers rehearse, Most and her team work to make sure not a single detail is lost.
Dance Magazine recently spoke to Most to find out what actually goes into the hair and makeup looks audiences see on the ABT stage.