SAB Trailblazer – Arthur Mitchell

This week, we honor SAB alumnus and ballet legend Arthur Mitchell in commemoration of the 52nd anniversary of his founding of the Dance Theatre of Harlem on February 11, 1969. Invited by Lincoln Kirstein to enroll at SAB in 1951 at the age of 17, Mr. Mitchell dedicated himself to becoming a classical ballet dancer despite the many obstacles facing African Americans at all levels of society. He persevered, and in 1955 he was invited to join New York City Ballet.

With the unwavering backing of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Mr. Mitchell rose through the ranks of NYCB and made history when he became the first Black principal dancer in the Company. He originated works in some of George Balanchine’s most renowned and groundbreaking ballets, including the male lead in Agon and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During his 13 years with the Company, he achieved international stardom as one of NYCB’s most accomplished and popular dancers, proving to the world that the traditional vision of classical ballet as an art form for and by white elites should be obsolete.

Arthur Mitchell as Puck in a Midsummer Night's Dream; Photo: Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Mitchell as Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream; Photo: Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, at the height of the civil rights movement, Arthur Mitchell founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with master teacher Karel Shook. What began with Mr. Mitchell teaching classes to children out of a converted garage in his native Harlem grew to become one of the most celebrated ballet companies in the world. Dance Theatre of Harlem was and continues to be revolutionary in its commitment to providing dancers of all colors and backgrounds the opportunity to train, perform and excel in classical ballet. Since its founding, DTH has broken barriers and inspired generations of dancers by integrating stages and establishing massive outreach programs in the U.S. and abroad.

“The arts ignite the mind, they give you the possibility to dream and to hope.”
-Arthur Mitchell

Watch the Arthur Mitchell Tribute that premiered at Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 2019 New York Season at New York City Center:

In the decade following his retirement from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mr. Mitchell did not recede from the spotlight, using his hard-earned influence to work against the status quo that continued to exist in the field of ballet. He labored tirelessly as an advocate for the School of American Ballet’s Diversity Initiative, reaching out to his vast network of contacts in the Black dance community and helping them to understand the authenticity of SAB’s mission to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. We owe Mr. Mitchell a great debt of gratitude for his unwavering support, his active participation, and his honest efforts to help SAB grow.

The impact Arthur Mitchell has made on the dance world and within the SAB community is immeasurable. We are grateful for his leadership in being a founding member of the School’s Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. And we are honored that Mr. Mitchell regularly returned to SAB to teach and visit with our students in the years leading up to his passing. We will forever miss his booming laughter, his generous smile, his energy and his endless enthusiasm.

We invite you to delve deeper into Mr. Mitchell’s life and legacy by visiting the virtual exhibit from the Columbia University Library – Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer. And celebrate the founding of Dance Theatre of Harlem by taking part in DTH’s Founder’s Week events happening all this week – February 8 through February 14.