Columbia Library Acquires Dance Pioneer Arthur Mitchell's Archive

May 14, 2015

(Editor's Note: On October 26-27, 2015, Columbia honored the 60th anniversary of Arthur Mitchell's debut with a two-day symposium, including a documentary screening and a conversation with Mitchell. Learn more.)

Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library has acquired the archive of pioneering ballet dancer, artistic director and choreographer Arthur Mitchell.

“I believe that dance, and the arts more broadly, can be used as a catalyst for social changethis is why I started the Dance Theatre of Harlem,” said Mitchell. “With these materials now at Columbia, artifacts of American dance history and African-American history will be accessible to young scholars, academics and the general public, furthering this push for change.”

The collection contains photographs, posters, programs, clippings, correspondence, early film footage and video content that tell the story of Mitchell’s acclaimed career, which helped change the landscape of ballet in America. He was the first African-American principal dancer of a major ballet company, the New York City Ballet, where co-founder and choreographer George Balanchine created iconic roles for him. Although Mitchell continued to dance on occasion with the New York City Ballet, he left full-time performing to co-found with Karel Shook the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first African-American classical ballet company to achieve international acclaim.

The collection offers a unique lens into both the cultural and social history of Harlem, where Mitchell was born and raised, and the influential role the arts have played in United States international diplomacy. Archive correspondence documents Mitchell’s encounters with some of the leading artists and politicians of recent times, including Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, Josephine Baker, Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen de Lavallade, Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela.

With support from the Ford Foundation, the Mitchell archive will reside at Columbia alongside an extraordinary collection of materials that document the cultural, social and political history of Harlem, as well as other major performing arts collections, including the recently acquired papers of composer Sergei Prokofiev.

“We are honored that Mr. Mitchell has decided to place his legacy with Columbia University and look forward to partnering with him and members of our community to ensure that his work isn’t only accessible, but actively engages people in his ideas and creativity,” said Sean Quimby, Director of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Mitchell made his debut with the New York City Ballet in 1955, after appearing on Broadway in House of Flowers, Truman Capote’s first musical. He was the only African-American dancer with the New York City Ballet until 1970 when he left the company. Balanchine created the groundbreaking pas de deux in Agon especially for Mitchell and the ballerina Diana Adams in 1957, among other roles. It is thought to be the first interracial duet in American ballet. News clippings in the archive describe protests at performances and venues in the South that wouldn’t allow Mitchell to appear. The collection includes Mitchell’s handwritten notes from when he was learning Balanchine’s choreography and later footage of Mitchell teaching Agon to younger dancers. There are also photographs of Mitchell partnering such iconic New York City Ballet ballerinas as Adams, Tanaquil le Clerq, Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo and Suzanne Farrell.

“From the legendary roles he created with George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet, to his historic work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Arthur Mitchell’s talent, vision and unwavering commitment have forever changed the cultural landscape of America,” said Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief of the New York City Ballet. “With this extraordinary contribution of his archives to Columbia University, Arthur has now ensured that his rich legacy will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.”

At its inception in 1969, Dance Theatre of Harlem held classes in a garage on 152nd Street in Harlem. The school's curriculum was designed to give local children the same opportunities Mitchell had as a teenager. The company made its official debut on January 8, 1971, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with three ballets choreographed by Mitchell. They also performed several works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins during the company’s inaugural season.

Over the years, Mitchell assembled an eclectic repertoire for his company ranging from Balanchine’s neo-classical-styled dances to the Ballet Russes classics, as well as works commissioned from African-American choreographers including Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan, Geoffrey Holder, Tally Beatty and Billy Wilson. The archive holds video and DVD footage, process notes and research material for some of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s signature dances such as Creole Giselle (1984), which transposes the story of Giselle to a community of free black plantation owners in Louisiana.

The company’s administrative papers, mission statements, grant proposals, financial records and dance curricula dating back to 1969 are part of Columbia’s collection, thanks to the generous support of the Ford Foundation and the work of the Arthur Mitchell Project.

“Arthur Mitchell is a living legend and the archive we are proud to support will serve to educate future generations on the power of the artistic process,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “We understand the contribution of artists to effect social change, and the opportunity to study and learn from the groundbreaking global phenomenon that is Arthur Mitchell is one for the ages.”

Other collection highlights are travel-related artifacts from Dance Theatre of Harlem’s trips to Russia in 1988 and South Africa in 1992, as well as photographs and materials from Mitchell’s most recent return to Russia in 2012 as part of the “American Seasons in Russia,” a cultural festival held under the auspices of the Bilateral Presidential commission established by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev.

The Mitchell archive will open to the public in 2017, when processing and cataloging has been completed. Columbia will be hosting an array of public programs and events—some featuring Mitchell—in collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

“Whether or not we made a career out of ballet, for so many of us the experience of studying with Mr. Mitchell at Dance Theatre of Harlem was transformational,” said Columbia School of the Arts Associate Dean for Community Engagement Marcia Sells, a former district attorney and longtime administrator at the university. “We are proud that Columbia will make it possible for the Mitchell archives to play a role in other young people’s lives for many years to come.”

— By Columbia News