Arthur Mitchell was best known as the founding director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, but his appearances at Jacob’s Pillow both pre-dated and followed his DTH years, spanning from 1953 to 2012. Born in Harlem, Mitchell was an avid social dancer before a guidance counselor suggested that he audition for the High School of Performing Arts. That training led him to perform with the modern dance companies of Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, and Donald McKayle, and it was with McKayle’s group that he made his Pillow debut in 1953 at the age of 19. He had graduated from high school at this point and had just begun studying at the School of American Ballet. After dancing on Broadway in House of Flowers, he returned to the Pillow in 1955 with the John Butler Dance Theatre, and soon thereafter was invited to join New York City Ballet, beginning his groundbreaking tenure there as the first black ballet dancer to achieve international stardom.
Mitchell didn’t perform at the Pillow during his fifteen years with NYCB, a period when he was creating prominent roles in Balanchine ballets (such as Agon and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
) as well as appearing on television and on Broadway. But after founding Dance Theatre of Harlem with his mentor, Karel Shook, Jacob’s Pillow once again played a key role in his career. It was here that DTH gave its first professional performances, several months before the company made its official debut at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Three years later, DTH was back at the Pillow on a program shared with Carmen de Lavallade, and the company returned one more time with Mitchell at the helm, in 1997. As the founder-director of DTH, Mitchell spent more than twenty years as a global ambassador, leading the company on international tours to Russia, South Africa, and the capitals of Europe.
Mitchell’s final Pillow appearance was in the cast of From the Horse’s Mouth: The Men Dancers
, a 2012 tribute to the Pillow’s beginnings as the home for Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers. He commanded the stage with engaging stories about two influential figures in his development—George Balanchine and Ted Shawn—while clips of some of his own standout performances played on a screen behind him. In his final year, he was once again celebrated near his Harlem roots, as the subject of a wide-ranging museum exhibition at Columbia University where he had donated his personal archives. He died in September 2018 at 84.
Source of Biography
Written by Norton Owen for Jacob's Pillow Remembers.