Arthur Mitchell: Founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem


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Photo by Martha Swope. Courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Dance Theatre of Harlem was co founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969. Arthur Mitchell was spurred on by Martin Luther King’s asassination to create DTH for the people of Harlem.

DTH now has both a school and an educational outreach programme
They have a repertoire of over 125 works. They were the 1st US company to perform in South Africa following a 30 year cultural ban.

'He has always been a believer. And, no doubt about it'

Arthur Mitchell’s sense of missionary zeal is contagious. Starting in a converted garage in Harlem, and armed with nothing more than his own abundant enthusiasms, Mitchell forged Dance Theatre of Harlem. Now a company of 36 dancers, DTH was the first and is still the only classical ballet company to showcase black dancers.

When I talked to him by phone from Connecticut this autumn, his enthusiasms were focused on an exceptional powwow that had just brought together nine nations of Native Americans in a proud celebration of heritage reclaimed and revitalised.

Arthur Mitchell

‘It was so exciting last night,’ says Mitchell, ‘tribes from all over the country gathered together for a kind of spectacle. It was marvellous, everyone caught up in the drums — even the kids and old women — all dancing in a huge circle. It was a sensational experience.’

One of the reasons Mitchell had been attending the powwow is Michael Smuin’s A Song of Dead Warriors, which DTH will be dancing in London next spring. This is a dramatic look at the plight (akin to the displaced aborigines of Australasia) of modern, urbanised Native Americans. Highly theatrical and choreographically athletic, this multi-media ballet was originally created for San Francisco Ballet in 1979. Telling its stories in big, bold strokes, it is an elegy to worlds that no longer exist and an indictment of what has replaced them.

‘It’s apropos,’ says Mitchell. ‘We all know that racism has not disappeared and these things have to be recognised. It is also a very exciting piece of dance theatre and a wonderful workout for our men. I’m very proud of our male contingent right now. They’ve really shot up in the last year. World class,’ he says with justifiable pride.

Any DTH residency goes way beyond what is happening on the stage. An integral part of the company’s very existence is its extensive educational and training programmes. Every day of last year’s London visit was packed with events taking place from Brixton to Holloway, from Greenwich to Stoke Newington, for everyone from kids to senior citizens, and even a sport workshop sponsored by Arsenal.

DTH’s triumphant return to London in 2002 broke a 14-year cycle of absence. During the 1970s the Harlem company had visited on such a regular basis that London practically became home away from home. In 1984 DTH even chose the London Coliseum as the venue for the premiere of its ‘Creole’ Giselle, a staging set in the bayous of Louisiana. The outcome was rave reviews and an Olivier Award. Then both straitened finances and a limited availability of performance spaces got in the way. But the moment Mitchell heard that Sadler’s Wells was being renovated, he began laying plans for DTH’s return to Britain. ‘It’s a wonderful venue now,’ he says, ‘ideal for us and, as we’ve found out, much more welcoming, and less intimidating than spots like Covent Garden or the Coliseum are likely to be.’

"Most touring companies are in-perform-go. DTH wants to leave something behind"

This season’s two-week residency (March 30-April 10) will feature a trio of programmes,Return including a tribute to George Balanchine, Mitchell’s mentor. The visit concludes on Easter weekend with a joyous bill that spotlights Return, a swaggering, fun-filled ballet set to some tracks by Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Choreographed by former DTH dancer Robert Garland, the flashy outcome — classicism with attitude — is a genuine crowd-pleaser danced on pointe but cut with urban savvy. It was such a huge success in 2002 that it is back again, this time on a bill with DTH’s tropical staging of The Firebird and Mitchell’s own African-inspired celebration Dougla. ‘You know,’ Mitchell says, ‘every time we come back we’ve gotta top ourselves.’