Arthur Mitchell, who broke barriers for African-Americans in the 1950s as a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet and who would go on to become a driving force in the creation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, has died at age 84. Mitchell died Wednesday (Sept. 19) at a New York City hospital according to his niece, Juli Mills-Ross. She said the death came after renal failure led to heart failure. Born in Harlem, Mitchell started dancing with the New York City Ballet in 1955 under famed choreographer George Balanchine.
Balanchine put him in several leading roles, including one pairing him with a white female dancer in Agon in 1957. In a January interview with The New York Times, Mitchell recalled the daring of that choice. “Can you imagine the audacity to take an African-American and Diana Adams, the essence and purity of Caucasian dance, and to put them together on the stage?” he said.
In 1968, impacted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell started a dance school that grew the next year to include the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Anna Glass, the executive director of the Dance Theater, told The Associated Press that Mitchell “truly was a visionary.”