Living Legacy Spotlight: Arthur Mitchell

The Ohio State University Department of Dance, in tandem with the Ohio Arts Council, sponsored Arthur Mitchell’s lecture. Special thanks to OSU Dance alumna China White, former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina, dance educator at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center and artistic director of Theatre Street Dance, for the community partnerships supporting Mitchell’s visit.

By Janet Schroeder (PhD student)

In February the Department of Dance welcomed a living legend of dance—Arthur Mitchell. Department dancers, faculty, staff and community members packed the Barnett Theatre, listening in awe as Mr. Mitchell told stories related to his experiences as the first African-American dancer with New York City Ballet, his close relationship with George Balanchine and his founding of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Hearing about his experiences as a black dancer in a predominantly white company during the Civil Rights Movement was especially poignant. Mr. Mitchell reported that, when on tour with NYC Ballet, presenters were often uncomfortable having a black dancer onstage with white dancers. To these concerns Mr. Balanchine would respond, “If Mitchell doesn’t dance, New York City Ballet doesn’t dance.” When, as director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mr. Mitchell decided to dye tights and shoes to match the skin tone of his dancers, he was criticized for breaking the rules of classical ballet. Reflecting on these experiences he said, “Sometimes you have to be brave to change history.”

As a dancer and a dance scholar, I value the histories we hold in our bodies. However, moments like this—opportunities to hear about a dance legend’s history in his own words—remind me of the significant contribution these stories make to the collective narrative of dance history. Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, for your important work and for sharing some of it with us.

Video and images by Kimberly Wilczak (MA ‘17) and Jessica Cavender (MFA ‘16)