What Wendy's Watching: Arthur Mitchell Blazes an International Trail
When Arthur Mitchell set out to prove that African Americans could excel in ballet, there were many skeptics. He not only created a world-class ballet company—Dance Theatre of Harlem—but he launched a discussion about race and ballet that we are still engaged in.
Who was Arthur Mitchell and how did he get the chutzpah to start a (mostly) black ballet company? Now we have a multi-faceted answer in an exhibit at Columbia University titled "Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer." It's curated by 2016 Dance Magazine Awardee Lynn Garafola, who is considered the foremost American dance historian.
Mitchell grew up in Harlem and became the first black principal at New York City Ballet. He danced beautifully, no matter what genre he was doing. He dazzled audiences with his performances in Balanchine ballets like Agon, The Four Temperaments, Midsummer Night's Dream, Bugaku and many other ballets. Then, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he used his own glorious dancing to do something for the civil rights movement. He started DTH with the help of Karel Shook, the ballet teacher he studied with at Katherine Dunham's school. The company traveled all over the world, meeting with a warm reception everywhere.
Allegra Kent and Mitchell in Balanchine's Agon. PC Fritz Peyer
This exhibit contains photos, videos, posters and a costume from Mitchell's vast archives. When you see the photos of Mitchell as a young man, his magnetism jumps off the wall. His beauty, charisma, gorgeous classical dancing—and his bold idea—attracted many talented, hopeful dancers.
Little known facts about Mitchell's life:
• He auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts with a tap dance! (Of course he got in.)
• After his graduation performance, he was offered scholarships at both School of American Ballet and Bennington College, known for its modern dance department. I think you know which path he chose.
• Before joining NYCB, he performed with choreographers Donald McKayle, Sophie Maslow, Dunham protégé Walter Nicks and—quite a surprise—David Vaughan.
Mitchell as the Snake in Todd Bolender's Creation of the World in 1960
The exhibit, presented in collaboration with Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, will be on view through March 11, 2018.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.