Arthur Mitchell passed away yesterday, aged 84. As soon as I heard to news on NPR I ran to my desk to uncover this interview I did with him back in 2010. Acne Paper’s EIC Thomas Persson asked me to interview Mr. Mitchell for Issue 11: In the Studio. Duncan Campbell, another editor at the paper and I dashed emails back and forth on how we saw this story shaping up. The excitement of working on features like this never grows old, especially when it involves an icon.
I reached out to Mr. Mitchells’ assistant Stefanie and miraculously he was up for an interview. We met a block away from my Harlem home in a badly lit room that was stark white. Zero coziness. Mr. Mitchell was there when I arrived and I was very nervous until he flashed that gorgeous smile. It was a beautiful experience and I was very proud when he stopped and looked and me and quietly said, “Wow, you are really making me think back to some places I haven’t thought about in years!” Always a sign of a good interview. I remember wrapping up with him and simply floating down 122 Street on a bubble of bliss and mist. Tears ran down my face as I thought of everything he has been through and accomplished.
I wanted to share this interview again, so here it is. Since it was only in print, I am pasting my word doc I kept from the interview. Enjoy and RIP you beautiful human.
ACNE PAPER 2011:
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, classical ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell knew he needed to go back to his roots. After becoming the first African-American in the New York City Ballet and having a pas de deux created especially for him by George Balanchine he left that world and founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969. There he provided children, especially those in Harlem, a place to learn about dance and a haven from the often-turbulent streets of New York. Since then the company has performed around the globe and Mitchell has been recognized with numerous awards including the Kennedy Center Honors, United States National Medal of Arts and has been named a MacArthur Fellow.
Harlem based writer and Block President Cator Sparks sat down with Mr. Mitchell in their hood to hear where it all started, what it lead to and what makes him happiest in his dance studio.
Cator Sparks: Is there a studio you have worked in that you remember the most or most fondly?
Arthur Mitchell: That would be Studio Three at the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) on West 152nd Street.
Cator: Why’s that?
Arthur: Because that’s where everything happened! We converted an old garage into the Dance Theatre and this studio has always been the star. It has red brick walls and a large skylight. It is very inviting. We only had three studios when we opened and studio three has always been the largest. In the basement we had wardrobe and dressing. We taught sewing and tailoring in the early years. As they say, “Poverty is the necessity of invention!”
Cator: Where was the first studio you learned how to dance and what was it like?
Arthur: There were many. You see the dance world was much smaller back then. I went to the high school of Performing Arts in the late 1940’s, early 1950’s where of course I did lots of rehearsing. Then, Karel Shook, my mentor and co-director at DTH had a studio on Eighth Avenue and 45th Street. Then there was Katherine Dunham’s studio on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street.
Wow you are really making me think back to some places I haven’t thought about in years!
Cator: Hope they are fond memories. What was Dunham’s studio like?
Arthur: That studio was heaven! It was when she was in her glory. Marlon Brando, Alvin Ailey, Sophie Maslow, Geoffrey Holder and many other budding actors and dancers were studying there. Then there was the New Dance Group on 48th or 49th so it was a triangle we would all bounce around.
Cator: Have you ever used your studio for another purpose, such as hosting a dinner or spending the night in it?
Arthur: Oh yes! Studio Three was where we held our open houses on the second Sunday of every month (Now called Sunday Matinees). We always wanted to open the doors so people could see what we do. We were the first place for African Americans to learn classical ballet so we wanted people to watch and learn. And it was great for students.
Cator: I can imagine. Any notable’s graced Studio Three in the past?
Arthur: Indeed! It has also been a studio where many incredible talents and friends have rehearsed such as Marion Anderson, Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. There have been several fashion shows and dinners hosted in that studio as well.
Cator: Tell me, do you like to be alone with students in your studio to practice or do you enjoy having people around?
Arthur: I really prefer it to be just the dancers and me, but when you are trying to raise money you have to have investors! They like to come and watch. But it really doesn’t bother me. We love hosting kids because it is so rare for these kids to see black people doing ballet! They shout out, “Wow that girl is on her toes!” And sometimes we put together a 60-piece orchestra so the kids can get a feel of what it’s going to be like on the main stage. It is also a great way for the community to know what we are doing. I don’t mind since it is all ‘showbiz’.
Cator: Is there something you have always had in your studio (as in something you have brought to each one like a statue, picture, etc)
Arthur: Not really but recently we have photos around Studio Three. The studio is so warm because of the red brick walls; you don’t really need anything else. Everyone remembers it. People always want to work in that studio.
Cator: Is there a pupil you have taught that stands out the most to you?
Arthur: There are thousands and thousands who have come through and made names for themselves! But Ronald Perry, he was 13 and absolutely perfect. He became a leading dancer then principle with American Ballet then with Maurice Béjart. Incredible talent. He just has it, you know?
Cator: Oh I know. Do you keep up with a lot of your students?
Arthur: Yes but not on these Facebook or Twitter’s! They all grew up together. It was a commitment. Everything we were doing was making history. I told them, "I am not giving you money, but I’m giving you history.” We gained worldwide recognition and these kids were extremely grateful and still are. I am always in touch with some of them.
Cator: Have you always had white dancers in the studio?
Arthur: Although we have always been integrated, one of the reasons I started DTH was to disprove the theory that black people could not perform classical ballet. People would come up to me and say, “ You are an exception” and I would reply back, “ No, I had the opportunity to dance classically!” There is a big difference.
Cator: Do you see your studio as a place of social change (in the early years)?
Arthur: Oh definitely so! Being the first of its kind, it was a haven for people all over the world to have an opportunity. In classical ballet for 200 years dancers wore pink but I realized it just didn’t look good on black people. I had the idea to dye the costumes the color of the persons skin. We had black, beige, and ecru, all of it! (He laughs). It made the dancers line so much more defined and it was again, something that had never been done before.
Cator: And speaking of firsts, didn’t you tweak several classical ballets to relate more towards your student?
Arthur: Our Creole Giselle! I ripped it out of the Rhineland and plopped it into the Louisiana bayou. We had our world premier in London and Princess Margaret was our hostess. We became close after her then husband came to shoot me at my first studio in an old church on West 122 Street in Harlem. I was told some man named Tony was coming to shoot me and I blew it off, but when he came in and I heard the accent I put two and two together realizing that it was Lord Snowdon and we became fast friends.
Cator: Isn’t there another one?
Arthur: We also taught Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite but we transposed it to a mythical island in the Caribbean. When we danced that in Russia it blew their minds! It was 1986 and we were the last to perform in the USSR. See, I didn’t necessarily want to teach the classics but I knew if I didn’t that would be cheating my students.
Cator: Did you have students who felt like your studio was a refuge from a difficult life or time? An escape?
Arthur: Oh yes. I am famous for going where angles fear to tread and DTH became a symbol of human rights. Back when we opened Harlem was very different. Kids were so excited to get accepted into the school to get away from the streets. I remember when we first opened I found the gang leader for our area and asked him to take care of us. We never had one spritz of graffiti on our building thanks to him. And we were safe.
Cator: That is pretty epic. But you didn’t only help the kids at DTH you spread the love didn’t you?
Arthur: I tried. I did a pas de deux called The Greatest using ‘The Greatest Love of All’ (later sung by Whitney Houston) from Muhammad Ali’s movie, The Greatest and performed it at many schools. People still come up to me and say that they saw me perform that and it made them a better person. That means a lot.
Cator: What is your fondest memory from your studio?
Arthur: The children! We start them at three years old. When you see these tiny people come in it’s just amazing to me. They are like sponges! Not every child will be a dancer but they will walk out a better person.
Cator: That is wonderful. Have you ever collaborated with other dancers in your studio?
Arthur: Well I was always working with and for Mr. Balanchine. And yes there were many others such as Freddy Franklin, Geoffrey Holder and of course Karel Shook. But we always had loads of famous people coming in and out of the studio.
Cator: Give me names!
Arthur: Oh, well Princess Margaret would come up when she was in town, of course, Lord Snowdon and dignitaries from all over the world. The Clinton’s were up a lot.
Cator: The Obama’s yet?
Arthur: We are still waiting!
Cator: If you could make changes/updates to your studio what would they be?
Arthur: I would make sure the academic part of school would be developed. I want dormitories, a theater that can be made into a cinema and a loft space to store lights, sets and costumes. But most of all dormitories. We have to look all over the city to find housing and it’s a real issue and extremely time consuming. I mean the Paris Opera, The Royal Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet all take in the students and they live there. Why cant we?
Cator: Agreed! And it’s not like there aren’t enough spare rooms in Harlem these days with the housing boom waning.
Cator: How many pieces have been choreographed in your studio? Do you keep records?
Arthur: Oh God our repertoire is about 150 pieces, full ballets, pas de deux, and pas de quatre. To disprove that black people couldn’t do ballet we did Scheherazade, Les Biches, pieces by Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robins. We did whatever style we could get our hands on. That’s why I called the company Dance Theatre because it’s an evening of theatrical dance, not just ballet. Our library is phenomenal. We work a lot with the Lincoln Center Library but we desperately need our own temperature-controlled rooms since we have a real treasure trove here. Martha Swope shot everything from day one!
Cator: Well Sir, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Tell me, do you still get a twirl in here and there?
Arthur: Sadly I don’t dance anymore after two hip replacements. But whenever I go to a rehearsal I promise myself I will just sit and watch but half way in I’m right up in there using my hands to explain what they need to do. It’s just in my blood!