Crystal Serrano never envisioned someday joining Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company founded by Arthur Mitchell to show the beauty and uplift of classical ballet on dancers of all colors. Her career began with Sacramento Ballet, which she joined after one year in Pacific Northwest Ballet School's Professional Division, but her time there was cut short by illness. After recovering, she felt so worn down that she left dancing behind and enrolled at the University of Washington. But she soon realized she'd made a mistake. "I thought, what am I doing?" she recalls. "I had to dance." With a fresh perspective and renewed determination, Serrano took an apprenticeship with Oregon Ballet Theatre before landing a job with Ballet San Antonio, where she soon rose to soloist.
Today, April 4, marks the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. It's a date heavy with meaning and symbolism for Kevin Thomas and Marcellus Harper, the founding directors of Memphis-based Collage Dance Collective. King's death not only marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, but it inspired Arthur Mitchell to found Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company and school devoted to providing opportunities to dancers of color. Harper and Thomas, a former DTH principal, have helped carry on Mitchell's mission through Collage Dance Collective, a company that showcases black dancers and choreographers.
"Keep the rhythm going," calls Robert Garland, Dance Theatre of Harlem's resident choreographer, from the front of the studio. Five company women pulse through a series of syncopated pony steps, upright arabesque sissonnes and funky, Motown-inspired dance moves. It's an open rehearsal in early September, and the company is giving curious audience members a sneak peek at Garland's upcoming world premiere—one of several new works this season as DTH celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, DTH was groundbreaking in its makeup of mostly African-American dancers, and its insistence that they could excel in ballet. "We were a bunch of dancers who had been told no, we couldn't do this, and Mr. Mitchell was giving us a chance to show that we could," says artistic director Virginia Johnson, a founding company member and former principal. "He was a very demanding taskmaster—he knew there was something very important to prove and that it was on us to prove it."
Twenty-one ballet organizations have come together to support the advancement of racial equity in professional ballet. They're all part of The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet, a new effort being led by Dance Theatre of Harlem, The International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.
Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives
As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Kurt Froman is best known for training celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence for dance roles on film. Yet Froman's Instagram has become our newest obsession for a whole other reason. Over the past few months, Froman has been posting rarely-seen clips of old NYCB rehearsal and performance videos. These videos feature Balanchine dancers from the early days, such as Suzanne Farrell, Arthur Mitchell, Karin von Aroldingen, Allegra Kent and Jacques d'Amboise as well as recently retired stars like Damian Woetzel, Darci Kistler, Peter Boal, Wendy Whelan and Lourdes Lopez. The videos are majority of works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (often in honor of his centennial this year), mixed in with a few television features on Balanchine.
If, like us, you're prone to geeking out over ballet history, you might want to set aside the rest of your afternoon (ahem, week) to dive in. We've posted some of our favorites below.
Allegra Kent and Jacques d'Amboise in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, early 1960s.
On Monday night, the National Dance Institute—the arts education organization founded by former New York City Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise—presented Balanchine's Guys, a lively discussion with d'Amboise and two other NYCB greats: Arthur Mitchell and Edward Villella. Many of their former NYCB colleagues, including Patricia McBride and Suki Schorer, were in the audience, and while the evening was sold out, NDI live-streamed part of the conversation. We know many of you weren't able to catch it, so we've included the video from NDI's Facebook page below. (There's a bit of a sound delay, but it's well worth the watch!)
All three shared priceless anecdotes of working with Balanchine. While NDI wasn't able to stream the whole discussion and performance, here are a few highlights from after the camera stopped rolling:
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.
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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).
You probably remember watching "Sesame Street" in your pre-ballet days, but did you know that some of your favorite ballet dancers and companies have appeared alongside your favorite PBS characters?
We've rounded up some our most beloved ballet scenes from the classic children's program below.
Count Suzanne Farrell's turns
Remember the days when you counted "1, 2, 3, 4" instead "and, 5, 6, 7, 8"? Relive that time as you—and the Count—add up the legendary Balanchine muse's turns in this 1985 episode.
Some may consider New York's Symphony Space a smaller theater, but big things were happening inside June 6–10. Just under 200 young dancers from all over the world were testing their luck at the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition in hopes of receiving scholarships, medals and company contracts. Their jury? An international panel of company and school directors, chaired by Andris Liepa, that included State Ballet of Georgia's Nina Ananiashvili, Boston Ballet School's Peter Stark, Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson and Cincinnati Ballet' s Victoria Morgan.
Virginia Johnson, former editor in chief of Pointe, was recently named artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Although the company has been on hiatus since 2004, the school and pre-professional ensemble are thriving. Johnson will work closely with Artistic Director Emeritus Arthur Mitchell to create a new strategic plan for the professional company.