Arthur Mitchell, co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), America’s first African American ballet company, was born in New York City, New York on March 27, 1934. Under Mitchell’s direction, Dance Theatre of Harlem rose to become one of the premier ballet companies in the United States, performing full-length neoclassical ballets, nationally and internationally from 1971 until the company’s performing hiatus in 2004. Mitchell served as the Artistic Director of DTH from the company’s first performance at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 1971, until his retirement as artistic director in 2009.
Raised in Harlem, Mitchell began his dance training at New York City’s High School of the Performing Arts. At age 18 he was awarded a full scholarship to continue his classical ballet training at the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s official training school. In 1955, under the direction of George Balanchine, Mitchell was the first African American male to become a permanent member of New York City Ballet. With the Ballet from 1955 to 1970, Mitchell quickly rose to the rank of principal dancer, and is best known for his lead role performances in the pas de deux from Agon, and as “Puck” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These roles were choreographed by Balanchine specifically for Mitchell.
Prior to founding DTH in 1969, Mitchell was asked to organize the now defunct American Negro Dance Company in 1966 and was designated by the United States International Association to found the National Ballet Company of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in 1967.
The momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 inspired Mitchell to create opportunities for children living in Harlem to study dance. Mitchell began teaching dance classes in a remodeled garage in the summer of 1968 and quickly amassed 400 students. In 1969, Mitchell and his mentor and ballet teacher, Karel Shook, invested Mitchell’s personal savings, along with financial assistance from the Ford Foundation and New York department store heiress, Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel, to found Dance Theatre of Harlem.
In late 2004, the professional company of Dance Theatre of Harlem went on hiatus due to the difficulty of raising funds. Currently, the performing arm of the school, the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble (directed by Keith Saunders), continues to perform at schools, colleges, universities, and dance festivals.
Recognizing the impact dance had on his own life, Mitchell continued to guest teach for the summer dance program at the school of Harlem Dance Theatre. He was widely acknowledged as a key figure in the dance community for challenging the dance world to recognize and amend the stereotypes that ballet is an art form exclusive to Eurocentric ethnic backgrounds.
Mitchell passed away on September 19, 2018, in Manhattan, NYC. He was 84, and was reported to have died of complications from heart failure.