Ballet Stars

New Exhibit Showcases Arthur Mitchell's Boundary-Breaking Career

Micael D. Harris, "Aspirations + Inspiration" (detail), with superimposed image of Arthur Mitchell, 1985.

A telegram from Lincoln Kirstein to Arthur Mitchell inviting him to join New York City Ballet; an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Suzanne Farrell and Mitchell in Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue; a sparkly red and purple Firebird costume and headpiece from Dance Theatre of Harlem's 1982 production—these are just some of the treasures on display at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery as part of an exhibit titled Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer. Open to the public through March 11, this collection offers a glimpse into Mitchell's boundary-breaking life and career.

Mitchell was raised in Harlem, and joined NYCB in 1955 at the age of 21. He quickly rose to the rank of principal, and is known for originating lead roles in works such as Agon and A Midsummer Night's Dream. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, Mitchell co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with his former teacher, Karel Shook. Under his over 40-year directorship, DTH became the first African American classical ballet company to achieve international acclaim. In 2015 Mitchell donated his archive to Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, starting a chain of events including a performance last October designed to share his vast contributions to diversity in dance with the public.


Arthur Mitchell in class, 1960s. Photo by Milton Oleaga. Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University.


The exhibit's curator, Barnard College's Professor Emerita of Dance, Lynn Garafola, said to an audience at the exhibit's opening last Friday that her goal for this project is to "reveal a fuller picture of Mitchell's performing career, and convey the special spirit that infused Dance Theatre of Harlem under his leadership." She hopes that this collection will help viewers to understand racism in the dance world in the 20th and 21st centuries.

"The art form will develop once you have inclusion from everybody," said Mitchell during the exhibit's opening reception last Friday night. He spoke of future plans to revive the arts in Harlem, and to put together an exhibition to bring on tour to historic black colleges all over the country. "This exhibition is the opening of Pandora's box," he says. "I will come out, and we'll see what will happen."

The Wallach Art Gallery is located in the Lenfest Center for the Arts on West 129th Street and is free and open to the public Wednesday–Friday from noon–8 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from noon–6 pm. The exhibit will feature a number of public programs over the coming months:

January 20, 2018, 1 pm: An Afternoon with Arthur Mitchell

January 27, 2018, 1 pm: Gallery Talk with Lynn Garafola

February 3, 2018, 1 pm: Gallery Talk with Kyle Froman (dance photographer and former dancer with NYCB)

February 24, 2018, 1 pm: Panel Discussion with former dancers from DTH

Visit wallach.columbia.edu for more information and a complete list of events.

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