Tag: black ballet dancers

R.I.P. Dance Legend Arthur Mitchell, 84, Founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem

Arthur Mitchell in 1963. (Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

by Jennifer Dunning via nytimes.com

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.

Mr. Mitchell, center, working with members of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1997. He founded the company in 1969 with the dance teacher Karel Shook, a friend and longtime mentor. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

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.

Black Girls Do Ballet to Publish “The Ballerina’s Little Black Book” on June 6

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article via clutchmagonline.com

In 2013, TaKiyah Wallace started Brown Girls Do Ballet as a photography project aimed at highlighting women of color in the dance world. As a mom of a tiny dancer and a fan of the art form herself, Wallace was aware of the lack of coverage dancers of color received.

Three years later Wallace runs a popular Instagram account with more than 80,000 followers that features brown ballerinas, and her organization supports young dancers by not only giving them a platform to shine, but also providing scholarships to help young girls continue their studies. Now, Brown Girls Do Ballet is releasing a book.

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Titled The Ballerina’s Little Black Book, the new project by former dancer and Brown Girls Do Ballet co-founder Brittani Marie features interviews with dancers like Misty Copeland, Aesha Ash, and Alicia Graf Mack as well as gorgeous pictures of dancers of color. Continue reading “Black Girls Do Ballet to Publish “The Ballerina’s Little Black Book” on June 6″

FEATURE: Misty Copeland Channels Degas’ Ballerinas for Photo Shoot, Opens Up about Making History

Copeland re-creates Degas’s The Star; Valentino dress, $15,500, 212-355-5811; Wilhelm headpiece, $495, and corsages, $135, wilhelm-nyc.com; Mokuba ribbon, $11 per yard, 212-869-8900. Photos by Ken Browar & Deborah Ory (via harpersbazaar.com)

Ballet dancers, Misty Copeland tells me, like to be in control. It’s something about ballet itself—the painstaking quest to achieve the appearance of a kind of effortless athleticism, fluidity, and grace—that makes it hard to let go. “I think all dancers are control freaks a bit,” she explains. “We just want to be in control of ourselves and our bodies. That’s just what the ballet structure, I think, kind of puts inside of you. If I’m put in a situation where I am not really sure what’s going to happen, it can be overwhelming. I get a bit anxious.”

Copeland says that’s part of the reason she found posing for the images that accompany this story—which were inspired by Edgar Degas‘s paintings and sculptures of dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet—a challenge. “It was interesting to be on a shoot and to not have the freedom to just create like I normally do with my body,” she says. “Trying to re-create what Degas did was really difficult. It was amazing just to notice all of the small details but also how he still allows you to feel like there’s movement. That’s what I think is so beautiful and difficult about dance too. You’re trying to strive for this perfection, but you still want people to get that illusion that your line never ends and that you never stop moving.”

It should probably come as no surprise that Copeland would have trouble conforming to someone else’s idea of what a ballerina should look like; she gave that up a long time ago. At 33, she’s in the midst of the most illuminating pas de deux with pop culture for a classical dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov went toe-to-toe with Gregory Hines in White Nights. Last June, she was named a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, the first African-American woman to hold that distinction.

Copeland as Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green); Oscar de la Renta dress, $5,490, 212-288-5810; Mokuba ribbon, $11 per yard; Hatmaker by Jonathan Howard headpiece corsage, $70, hatmaker.com.au. (photo by Ken Browar & Deborah Ory)

She was also the subject of a documentary, Nelson George’s A Ballerina’s Tale, which chronicled her triumph over depression and body-image issues, as well as her comeback from a career-threatening leg injury in 2012. The story of her rise from living in a single room in a welfare motel with her mother and five siblings to the uppermost reaches of the dance world has become a sort of 21st-century parable: the unlikely ballerina, as Copeland referred to herself in the subtitle of her 2014 memoir, Life in Motion, who may be on her way to becoming the quintessential ballerina of her time.

Degas’s ballet works, which the artist began creating in the 1860s and continued making until the years before his death, in 1917, were infused with a very modern sensibility. Instead of idealized vis -ions of delicate creatures pirouetting onstage, he offered images of young girls congregating, practicing, laboring, dancing, training, and hanging around studios and the backstage areas of the theater. Occasionally, portly men or dark figures appear, directing or otherwise coloring the proceedings. “People call me the painter of dancing girls,” Degas is said to have once told his Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, the Larry Gagosian of the day. “It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.” It’s an unsentimental place, Degas’s ballet, and his representation of the dancers is far from sympathetic. But it’s a space where he discovered not only a freedom for himself as an artist but also a kind of beauty that existed behind all the beauty of the performance and in the struggle of his subjects to become something.

Copeland as Degas’s Dancer; Carolina Herrera top, $1,490, skirt, $4,990, 212-249-6552; Hatmaker by Jonathan Howard headpiece, $750, hatmaker.com.au; Mokuba ribbon, $11 per yard, 212-869-8900; Mood Fabrics fabric (worn as a belt), 212-230-5003. (photo by Ken Browar & Deborah Ory)

“Degas’s focus on dance is part of his engagement with depicting the subjects, spaces, rhythms, and sensations of modern life,” says Jodi Hauptman, senior curator in the department of drawings and prints at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition that explores Degas’s extensive work in monotype, “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” opens this month. “His vision wanders and focuses, taking note of what usually is overlooked and homing in on what best reflects the conditions of his time.”

In her own way, Copeland is now forcing people to look at ballet through a more contemporary lens. “I see a great affinity between Degas’s dancers and Misty,” says Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “She has knocked aside a long-standing music-box stereotype of the ballerina and replaced it with a thoroughly modern, multicultural image of presence and power,” Golden says. “Misty reminds us that even the greatest artists are humans living real lives.”

“I definitely feel like I can see myself in that sculpture…Ballet was just the one thing that brought me to life.”

The first blush with ballet for Copeland was famously unromantic. Her mother, Sylvia DelaCerna, was a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs, and her older sister had been a member of the drill team at their middle school in Hawthorne, near their home in San Pedro, California. So, at the age of 13, Copeland decided to try out for the drill squad herself, choreographing her own routine—to George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.” “An odd choice of song,” she says. “I chose ‘I Want Your Sex’ not really knowing anything about what that meant. But that’s how my whole dance career took off.”

Copeland as Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen; Alexander McQueen dress, $4,655, and corset, $4,525, 212-645-1797; Mood Fabrics ribbon (in hair), 212-230-5003. (photo by Ken Browar & Deborah Ory)

Copeland didn’t just make the team; she was named captain. Her drill coach, Elizabeth Cantine, had a background in classical dance and suggested that Copeland try taking a ballet class at the local Boys & Girls Club. “The class was given on a basketball court, and I was wearing my gym clothes and socks—pretty far from a Degas painting,” Copeland recalls. But she was hooked. Within three months, she was dancing en pointe. “Before dance came into my life, I don’t really remember having any major goals or dreams of wanting to be anything. In the environment I grew up in, we were constantly in survival mode,” Copeland says. “I went to school, and I was really just trying to fit in and not be seen. But ballet was this thing that just felt so innate in me, like I was meant to be doing this.”

To read more go to: http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/art-books-music/a14055/misty-copeland-degas-0316/?mag=har&list=nl_hnl_news&src=nl&date=021016

It’s Official: Misty Copeland Becomes 1st Black Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater

Prima Ballerina Misty Copeland (Photo via livetalksla.com)
Prima Ballerina Misty Copeland (Photo via livetalksla.org)

One of today’s most famous ballerinas just made history by becoming the first African-American woman to hold the position of principal dancer at the American Ballet TheaterMisty Copeland was promoted Tuesday after more than 14 years with the company, the New York Times reports. She spent eight of those years as a soloist, the Times points out.

Copeland, known for being vocal about the lack of representation and diversity in the company and in the realm of dancing in general, made the cover of TIME magazine just this year. She is also the subject of a documentary screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Times writes.  In addition to being known for a popular Under Armour ad, she has a base of followers on social media larger than some of Hollywood’s finest.

But it’s Copeland’s precision and elegant fluidity while she dances that compound her popularity. That and her tendency to make history — her new post as principal dancer isn’t the first time her name will be written in books. Just this month, Copeland became the first African-American woman to star in “Swan Lake” with the Ballet Theater, a performance so well-attended that cheers from the crowd reportedly stopped parts of the show.

From the NYT:

Ms. Copeland, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was unusually outspoken about her ambition of becoming the first black woman named a principal dancer by Ballet Theater, one of the nation’s most prestigious companies, which is known for its international roster of stars and for staging full-length classical story ballets.

“My fears are that it could be another two decades before another black woman is in the position that I hold with an elite ballet company,” she wrote in her memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” published last year. “That if I don’t rise to principal, people will feel I have failed them.”

This put an unusual public spotlight on Ballet Theater as it weighed the kind of personnel decision that, in the rarified world of ballet, is rarely discussed openly. If the company had not promoted Ms. Copeland, it risked being seen as perpetuating the inequalities that have left African-American dancers, particularly women, woefully underrepresented at top ballet companies.

Stella Abrera, Alban Lendorf, and Maria Kochetkova were all named principal dancers along with Copeland.

article by Christina Coleman via newsone.com

Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack to Dance “Swan Lake” at DC’s Kennedy Center on April 9

Prima Ballerina Misty Copeland (Photo: hellogiggles.com)
Prima Ballerina Misty Copeland (Photo: hellogiggles.com)

History will be made at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on the evening of Thursday, April 9, when Misty Copeland, a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, joins Brooklyn Mack of the Washington Ballet in a performance of Swan LakeCopeland and Mack, both African American, will go where no dancers of color have gone before. They will become the first African Americans to dance the leading roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried respectively in the traditional ballet.

Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack (Photo:
Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack (Photo: ballet.co.uk)

There should be little doubt that Copeland—a rising star at the American Ballet Theater who gained notoriety after appearing in a widely noticed Under Armour advertising campaign—and Mack—trained at Washington’s Kirov Academy of Ballet and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet—have demonstrated ample talent on ballet stages around the world. Their appearance as leads in Swan Lake would be seen merely as appropriate next steps in their expanding careers if they were white.

Their success should remind all Washingtonians of the pioneering role that D.C. has played in promoting African-American dance. As dance historian Tamara Brown has noted, the juxtaposition of academic training at Howard University and the numerous popular theaters along U Street nurtured a creative center for African-American dance during much of the 20th century. Howard University’s Maryrose Reeves Allen stood at the heart of this energetic scene.

Allen, who was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1899, earned her college degree at the Sargent School in Massachusetts before teaching summer school at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, then the country’s leading center for the study of African dance. She joined the Howard faculty in 1925 as the director of a new physical education program for women.

Allen’s arrival coincided with the heyday of the Howard University Players under the leadership of T. Montgomery Gregory and Alain Locke. Two years after coming to the Howard campus, Allen established a group that would grow to become the Howard University Dance Ensemble, one of the era’s most inspired African-American companies.

Allen’s dancers penetrated the world of white concert dance by the 1950s, performing with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and on many integrated stages in New York City. Her students—including Debbie Allen, Chuck Davis, Melvin Deal, Ulysses Dove and George Faison—populated major classical and modern dance companies throughout the U.S., from Broadway stages to Hollywood studios. They nurtured a lively dance scene in Washington that spawned the Capitol Ballet and professional companies associated with the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 1970s.

Maryrose Reeves Allen remained active in the Howard University and dance communities after her retirement in 1967. In 1991, one year before Allen’s death, Howard became the first historically black university to offer a degree in dance through its Department of Theatre Arts. Her spirit will be very much present at the Kennedy Center as Copeland and Mack step center stage.

article by Blair Ruble via theroot.com

Dance Theater of Harlem Reopens after Nine Years

Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, with her dancers, at an open rehearsal. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

In the early days of Dance Theater of Harlem its members, charged with proving to the world that black dancers could master ballet, needed a certain pluck. “It was a group of young dancers that went out and carried their own lights and did lecture-demonstrations and started performing,” said Laveen Naidu, 45, the organization’s executive director.

Dance Theater of Harlem performers rehearsing Robert Garland’s new “Gloria.”

That scrappy image has served Virginia Johnson well. The elegant artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem — and its star ballerina for 28 years — Ms. Johnson, 63, was reminded of such humble beginnings last spring, when she held auditions for the rebirth of the company. (It had been forced to go on hiatus in 2004 when it announced its $2.3 million debt.) As Ms. Johnson put it, she had stars in her eyes. But she was in for a surprise.

“I was really shocked at how few African-Americans auditioned,” she said. “And that was the moment when we were looking in this room, and it was like, ‘No, but where are the black people?’ ”

She laughed, as she often does when describing a seemingly hopeless situation. “I thought about Arthur Mitchell with all the hodgepodge of dancers that came to him back in 1969 that he had to make into a company. I said, ‘O.K., it’s the same thing again, and this is great.’ It was actually more exciting than taking top-level dancers and making them into a company. It meant that we had to have that inner-grit thing going again.”

Dance Theater, formed by Mr. Mitchell and Karel Shook, took on the barrier-breaking mission of training and presenting black classical ballet dancers to the world. For years the company was more than a thriving, internationally touring troupe. It showed that ballet was no longer just a white domain. But then the company disappeared, leaving a gaping hole.  One year off turned into nine; disillusionment set in. Now Dance Theater is making a comeback. Beginning Wednesday the company, lean at just 18 members from 44 in 2004, will perform at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Continue reading “Dance Theater of Harlem Reopens after Nine Years”