Arthur Mitchell, a charismatic dancer with New York City Ballet in the 1950s and ’60s and the founding director of the groundbreaking Dance Theater of Harlem, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 84. His death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of heart failure, said Juli Mills-Ross, a niece. He lived in Manhattan.
Mr. Mitchell, the first black ballet dancer to achieve international stardom, was one of the most popular dancers with New York City Ballet, where he danced from 1956 to 1968 and displayed a dazzling presence, superlative artistry and powerful sense of self.
That charisma served him well as the director of Dance Theater of Harlem, the nation’s first major black classical company, as it navigated its way through severe financial problems in recent decades and complex aesthetic questions about the relationship of black contemporary dancers to an 18th-century European art form.
Born in Harlem on March 27, 1934, Arthur Adam Mitchell Jr. was one of five children. His father was a building superintendent, and his mother, Willie Mae (Hearns) Mitchell, was a homemaker.
An avid social dancer all his life, Mr. Mitchell had his first exposure to formal training when a junior high school guidance counselor saw him dancing at a class party and suggested that he audition for the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan.
Mr. Mitchell worked so hard there that in stretching he tore his stomach muscles and was hospitalized. But he was soon performing with the school’s modern-dance ensemble and experimenting with his own choreography. He also performed in Europe and the United States with Donald McKayle (who died in April), Louis Johnson, Sophie Maslow and Anna Sokolow, and he played an angel in a 1952 revival of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” in New York and Paris.
Mr. Mitchell was 18 when he began studying with Mr. Shook, a demanding ballet teacher who encouraged black dancers to train in classical dance. On his graduation from the High School of Performing Arts he was offered a modern-dance scholarship at Bennington College in Vermont and a ballet scholarship at the School of American Ballet in New York. He chose to study ballet, although there were almost no performing outlets for black dancers in the field.
Beneath Mr. Mitchell’s gleaming smile and sunny charm was a tenacity of belief and purpose that could be almost frightening. In Lincoln Kirstein, a founder with Balanchine of the City Ballet school and company, Mr. Mitchell found a similarly stubborn friend. To get into the company’s corps de ballet, Mr. Kirstein told him, he must dance like a principal.
During his student years, Mr. Mitchell performed in modern dance and on Broadway in “House of Flowers,” and he was on tour in Europe with the John Butler Dance Theater when the invitation came to join City Ballet for the 1955-56 season.
When asked in an interview with The New York Times in January what he considered his greatest achievement, he said, “That I actually bucked society, and an art form that was three, four hundred years old, and brought black people into it.”
His dancing in just two roles created for him by New York City Ballet founder and choreographer George Balanchine ensured him a place in American ballet history.
In the first, in “Agon,” a trailblazing masterwork of 20th-century ballet that had its premiere in 1957, Mr. Mitchell embodied the edgy energy of the piece in a difficult, central pas de deux that Balanchine choreographed for him and Diana Adams. In this duet, “Balanchine explored most fully the possibilities of linear design in two extraordinary supple and beautifully trained human bodies,” the dance historian and critic Lillian Moore wrote.
“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. “Everybody was against him. He knew what he was going against, and he said, ‘You know my dear, this has got to be perfect.’ ”
Five years after “Agon,” Balanchine created the role of a lifetime for Mr. Mitchell as the high-flying, hard-dancing, naughty Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He danced the part, Walter Terry wrote, “as if he were Mercury subjected to a hotfoot.”
Mr. Mitchell would forever be identified with the role.
One of the last ballets Mr. Mitchell performed with City Ballet was Balanchine’s “Requiem Canticles,” a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. created shortly after he was killed in 1968. Profoundly affected by the King assassination, Mr. Mitchell began to work toward establishing a school that would provide the children of Harlem with the kinds of opportunities he had had.
He founded the Dance Theater of Harlem the next year with Karel Shook, a friend and longtime mentor. In the early 2000s, the company, along with its dance school, faced mounting debt, and it was forced to go on hiatus in 2004. But it returned to performance in reduced form in 2012 and now tours regularly and performs at City Center. The school today has more than 300 students.
Mr. Mitchell became artistic director emeritus of Dance Theater in 2011.
He returned to the company in August to oversee a production of “Tones II,” a restaging of one of his older ballets. It is to be performed in April, to commemorate Dance Theater’s 50th anniversary.