In celebration of renowned dancer, choreographer, and artistic director Arthur Mitchell’s life-long contributions to racial diversity in dance, “An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance” was presented at Miller Theatre on Monday night.
Dancers from eminent companies that champion racial inclusivity, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and American Ballet Theatre, performed a variety of repertories; some choreographed by Mitchell himself, the rest previously danced by or inspired by Mitchell.
Mitchell pioneered diversity in the dance world in 1955 when he became the first African-American principal dancer at New York City Ballet. In 1969, Mitchell co-founded DTH to bring dance to his native Harlem community and celebrate talented dancers of color. DTH continues to provide opportunities for dancers of color, with 16 company members touring internationally with classical and African American-influenced contemporary ballet choreography.
Mitchell donated his archival collection, which documents his career through images, programs, clippings, and correspondence, to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 2015. “An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance” is the first of two events celebrating Mitchell’s donation. The second, an art exhibit entitled Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer, will feature artifacts from his collection in the Lenfest Center for the Arts beginning Jan. 13.
Following an introduction by Cicely Tyson—acclaimed actress, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and honorary Columbia doctorate holder—Mitchell stepped onstage to a standing ovation. He settled into a Columbia-blue leather chair at the front of the stage, where he remained throughout the performance, prefacing each piece with a brief history or anecdote about the performers.
The first dance, Mitchell’s choreography of “Balm and Gilead,” was performed by former star of Alvin Ailey Alicia Graf Mack, GS ’03.
“It’s almost like a prayer to bless the floor, to bring us in,” Mitchell said in his introduction. “[It] is danced by one of the most phenomenal young people I’ve ever worked with.”
Mack seemed to embody the Biblical perfume referenced in the title. She held an intense focus while occasionally diffusing her energy outward and traversing the stage with mesmerizing leg extensions.
Perhaps the most historically significant performance was from George Balanchine’s ballet “Agon,” a controversial work that paired an African-American man with a white woman in a sensual duet, created for Mitchell beginning in 1953. Balanchine, NYCB’s founder, considered this to be “one of the hardest things he’d ever done, ... taking a young African-American male and having him dance with this great caucasian ballerina, Diana Adams,” according to Mitchell.
“[Balanchine] knew the slack he would get from many, many people to put me out there with Diana,” Mitchell added. “It became part of the choreography: my skin color against hers.”
Performing the duet Monday night were Unity Phelan of NYCB and Calvin Royal III of American Ballet Theatre. Much of the choreography involved the pair in tactile resistance. By pushing against one another, they extended their limbs farther than they could alone. With consistent touch and prolonged splaying of limbs, the physical tension was almost sexual.
During a panel with the dancers and Mitchell after the performance, an audience member asked Royal how he felt performing “Agon” “before the master.” Royal replied, “Having Mr. Mitchell sit there and see the pas de deux that was created on him—it was really special and surreal to me.”
When another audience member asked Mitchell what it felt like to watch another dancer perform the role he originated in “Agon,” Mitchell said he felt “very proud.”
“It’s very exciting to see how a piece of choreography has grown,” he said.
The thread of interracial interaction strung through Balanchine’s “Agon” was woven into a larger discussion about race relations and the arts when a student from the DTH school asked the panel about discrimination in the dance world since Mitchell’s era. Before a verbal response was offered, a handful of dancers kneeled in solidarity with the recent movement of NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem in protest of racial injustice.
This gesture was met with roaring applause from the audience.
Brooklyn Mack, a dancer with The Washington Ballet, offered his response to the question: “Racism and discrimination are not things of the past in society, as we very well have seen. But in confronting it, I think that the most important thing is to let your art speak for itself. Art transcends all of that which separates us.”
“I think we have a huge responsibility to push our art forward and to make sure it’s something that doesn’t remain silent,” Mack added.
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