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Choreographing in Future Tense

Let others talk about his legacy. Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem has new work to develop.

January 13, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN

On Sept. 25, 2001, Dance Theatre of Harlem opened its season in New York City with four premieres by choreographers long associated with the company--by any standard, a lot of new work for a dance program. Three of those new dances--Laveen Naidu's "Virra," Robert Garland's "New Bach" and Lowell Smith's "Pas de Deux for Phygia and Spartacus"--will be performed during the company's engagement Friday through next Sunday at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

The opening-night performance in New York marked another first for the company: Onstage at City Center, it was announced that Dance Theatre of Harlem would get a new name, Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem.

And no one was more surprised by the announcement than Mitchell, artistic director and founder of the company. "Oh, yeah, I didn't know anything about it," he said with a laugh during a recent conversation with The Times. "Many people said, 'We've very rarely seen you at a loss for words,' but I was just bowled over."

In 1955, Mitchell became the first African American male dancer in a major classical ballet company when he joined New York City Ballet, where he would perform lead roles for 15 years, including several created for him by company artistic director George Balanchine. Upon learning of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Mitchell was moved to jettison his successful performing career to found Dance Theatre of Harlem, a haven for African American ballet dancers that has, during the past 15 years, redefined itself as a multicultural company.

After more than 30 years at the helm, Mitchell, 67, reflected on how the dance world has changed, how Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem has changed, and how the company plans to face a future rendered uncertain by the events of Sept. 11.

Question: You were busy working on a film project this week. What was that?

Answer: The Balanchine Foundation was filming, or maybe I should say recording, as many people as they could [talking about] ballets that were created or choreographed for them. So they asked me about the "Agon" pas de deux, which was created for me by Mr. Balanchine and Mr. Stravinsky. Things change over a period of time, and they are trying to preserve as much of the original choreography as they can.

Q: This year, looking back at your career seems to have become a theme of sorts.

A: [Laughing] Well, it may be to everyone else, but I am looking forward to what I am going to be doing! But yes, we have titled our season "Living the Legacy," exploring how I am passing on the legacy of dance to the young people here; that was the theme of our season at City Center.

Q: Your legacy will be more apparent now, with the renaming of the company.

A: Although people have started saying "Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem," the actual change of the name has not happened, because we just have not had the chance to deal with all the changing of the notes and the bylaws, amendments and resolutions. But it was a great honor, actually.

Q: The new name raises the question: Can the company live on beyond you?

A: Well, I always planned for Dance Theatre of Harlem to go on beyond me. Most companies exist primarily to do the choreography of [the namesake] choreographer. That's never really been my goal. We have a wide, varied repertoire that needs to be danced; it wasn't just a haven for me to choreograph my work.

We have the infrastructure [so] that the organization can go on. We've brought in a CEO, we've got a director of development, a director of administration and human resources, marketing director, special events person. Artistically, the company has always been very well known and very well accepted, but there is a point where I was doing everything, and they said, "No matter how wonderful you are, you've got to start putting things in place, because you are 67 years old." Many people felt that there was too much power in the hands of one person, and if I got hit by a car, the organization would go under.

Q: Are you thinking about retiring?

A: No. It's not even a question.

Q: I read somewhere that you first appeared on stage 50 years ago.

A: [Laughs] 52.

Q: How has the world of classical ballet changed?

A: The whole world, the whole field has changed. The thing is, when I started Dance Theatre of Harlem, I was the only African American male dancer in a major ballet company, that's No. 1. Now, I do see all of the companies have integrated, whether they've got Hispanic or Asian or African American dancers in their companies, and that is a major, major, major step. Then the theory that blacks couldn't do classical ballet, I think that's been disproven.

About 12, 14 years after I established the company, I realized again that I was setting up a barrier; I felt that our company should reflect the society that we live in, so we integrated. The company is mostly African American, but you will see Caucasian people in the company, Asian people in the company.

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