Arthur Mitchell Talks Race and Balanchine

Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Darren Thomas/QPAC

Misty Copeland's rise to principal status and stardom this year has thankfully prompted conversations about race and ballet. It's also prompted excitement around the idea of "firsts," though often mistakenly. Misty is the first African American female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, and this is huge and important. She is not the first African American principal at ABT (Desmond Richardson came before her), though I've heard many say that, nor is she the first African American principal at a major American company (some, though not enough, have come before her). Misty is clear about recognizing those who came before her when she discusses her accomplishments, but others sometimes aren't. 

 

One of the most important black dancers in the history of American ballet is Arthur Mitchell (a 1975 Dance Magazine Award winner), who danced for New York City Ballet beginning in 1955, and later co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem. On Monday, I attended a panel at Barnard College commemorating Mitchell and his archives, which have recently found a home at Barnard and Columbia University. Mitchell reminded me of what (and who) is missing from conversations about race and ballet.

Arthur Mitchell and George Balanchine. Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy NYPL for the Performing Arts.

Though Mitchell joked about how people have forgotten about him in all the Misty hubbub, even he was careful to point out the black dancers who came before him. He lauded Balanchine for having progressive ideas about race, and for dreaming of one day having a half-black company. Mitchell talked about one of Balanchine's earliest muses, Betty Nichols, a black dancer who with Tanaquil Le Clercq traveled with the choreographer before he founded New York City Ballet.

Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams rehearse Agon. Photo Martha Swope, courtesy NYPL for the Performing Arts

What stuck with me the most were Mitchell's words about Agon. Balanchine made the steamy pas de deux for his famous 1957 ballet on Mitchell and white ballerina Diana Adams. Having a black man and a white woman dance together was a statement, and with the added element of sensuality, Agon was revolutionary. Mitchell insisted that the contrast between the color of his skin and the color of the ballerina's skin is part of the choreography, and that casting white men makes for a different ballet. These days, Amar Ramasar often dances this role, but many white men have danced it, too.

Here's another early version of Agon with Mitchell, this time partnering Allegra Kent:

I hope that NYCB continues to honor Agon's history by casting dancers of color in this role. (Who knows, maybe it'll be Taylor Stanley's next big break!) And I hope we can ground our conversations about race and dance in history by remembering the work of pioneers like Mitchell.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021