Arthur Mitchell. Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University.

Arthur Mitchell on "Agon": "My Skin Color Against Hers, It Became Part of the Choreography"

When American Ballet Theatre soloist Calvin Royal III and New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan burst into the opening diagonal of George Balanchine's Agon on Monday, they had reason to be nervous. Sitting in the downstage corner of Columbia University's Miller Theater—precisely where they'd need to spot their pencil turns—was Arthur Mitchell, the Dance Theater of Harlem co-founder and longtime director who originated the male role at NYCB in 1957. It was a rare and exciting moment of the future meeting the past. (Royal later described the experience as "surreal.") The two dancers, who had been coached by former NYCB principal Heather Watts, gave an electric and intense performance. Afterwards, Mitchell turned to the audience from his blue leather chair and smiled. "I would say it's in good hands."


Royal III and Phelan performing "Agon" during the Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail Dance Festival.

Their appearance was part of "An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance," an evening directed by Mitchell to celebrate both his legacy and the Arthur Mitchell archive at Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (The first exhibition featuring Mitchell's donated archives will be on display at Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery January 13–March 11, 2018.) A slew of guest artists came together for the program, which included works by Balanchine, Alvin Ailey and Mitchell himself (including his South African Suite and Rythmetron).




Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member Ashley Mayeaux in Mitchell's "South African Suite." Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University.

Mitchell, 83, sat onstage throughout, giving fascinating commentary on each work. For instance, Balanchine's choice to pair Mitchell with Diana Adams, a white woman, in Agon was intentional. "My skin color against hers, it became part of the choreography," Mitchell said. He recalled how Balanchine, knowing how controversial the interracial pas de deux would be at the time, told him, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done…everything has to be right."



Many of the evening's dancers had studied under Mitchell. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Ashley Mayeaux, Akua Noni Parker and Michael Jackson, Jr. got back into ballet mode for the evening, while ABT corps member Erica Lall tried her hand at Balanchine in The Four Temperaments. The Washington Ballet's Brooklyn Mack showed off his thrilling pyrotechnical skills in variations from Diana and Actaeon and Le Corsaire. Bad Boys of Dance's Rasta Thomas and Jamal Story, a former dancer with Complexions and on Broadway, each gave solo tributes to Mitchell, with Thomas calling him "the greatest teacher and mentor of my life." And former DTH and Ailey star Alicia Graf Mack returned to perform Balm in Gilead, a prayerful solo Mitchell created on her at the age of 18.


Brooklyn Mack in the variation from "Diana and Actaeon." Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University

Afterwards, all the dancers joined Mitchell onstage for a Q&A. At one point, two DTH students asked if discrimination was still a problem in the ballet world. "It's not completely a thing of the past," said Brooklyn Mack. "But in confronting it, the most important thing is to let art speak for itself, because it transcends. As artists, we have a huge responsibility to push our art forward and not stay silent."

Latest Posts


Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Alonzo King LINES Ballet Reconnects with Nature in This 5-Part Video Series

Earlier this month, Alonzo King LINES Ballet released the first in a series of five dance films, part of a new project entitled "There Is No Standing Still." The series features company members spanning 10 cities and four continents dancing amid their outdoor environments, in spaces ranging from quiet forests to rocky deserts to the ocean shore. While COVID-19 has put the company's normal activity on hold and forced the dancers to separate from each other physically, "There Is No Standing Still" allows LINES to create new material together in a different way. Directed by Robert Rosenwasser and edited by Philip Perkins, this installment of five short films incorporates choreography by artistic director Alonzo King and company dancers as they become one with the space around them. Check out the first two, released last month, below.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
VAM/Siggul, Courtesy YAGP

YAGP Has Announced the Winners of the 2020 Pas De Deux Virtual Competition

Last weekend, Youth America Grand Prix took to the internet, hosting its first virtual pas de deux competition. Over the course of three days, YAGP streamed videos from its regional events' highest-ranked competitors for a panel of esteemed judges. And, drum roll please... YAGP has just announced the winners, spanning three categories: Senior Classical, Junior Classical and Contemporary.

You can watch the full virtual awards ceremony, hosted by YAGP director of external affairs Sergey Gordeev, below, or scroll down for the list of winners. And if you're missing the thrill of competition, don't fear: Gordeev announced that registration for the 2021 season will open on July 10, with both in-person and virtual options available.

Congratulations to all!

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks