Tag: Dance

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.

“Brown Girls Do Ballet” Draws Attention to Dance’s Need for Diversity

Photo From Brown Girls Do Ballet Instagram via Alex Ray Studios
Photo From Brown Girls Do Ballet Instagram via Alex Ray Studios 

The organization Brown Girls Do Ballet is drawing attention to ballet’s need for diversity through beautiful Instagram posts.

According to their website, the organization is “dedicated to promoting diversity in ballet programs through various media platforms, training resources, and an exclusive network in the world of ballet.”

Co-founders TaKiyah Wallace and Brittani Marie created the group in 2013 after Wallace noticed a lack of diversity among her young daughter’s ballet classes.

“We realized the missing link to diversifying ballet was a resource that spoke to their identity. We wanted to convey a message of acceptance, vision, and possibility,” the founders told BuzzFeed.

The duo wanted to show young dancers of color that there are dancers out there that look like them, so they began their Instagram page.

One of their Instagram videos of students dancing en pointe to Disclosure and Sam Smith’s “Omen” recently went viral. Check it out below:

article by Carrie Healey via thegrio.com

NYC Dance Performance “FLEXN” Targets Social Injustice

NEW YORK (AP) — An emotionally charged series in New York City is exploring racial and social injustice through dance, photography and public dialogue.

Among the elements of the production opening Wednesday is a stirring performance by 21 African-American dancers whose style of street dance known as “flex” is inspired by events in their own lives as well as larger issues like police-involved shootings of blacks.

The 21 dancers, most of them men ages 18 to 32, will perform at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory as part of a series that includes a panel of experts exploring pressing issues of social and criminal justice and a photo installation described as the single largest documentation of juveniles in solitary confinement in the United States.

“Every one of them has lost someone to a shooting, frequently to a police shooting,” said Peter Sellars, a theater director known for stretching artistic boundaries and the co-director of FLEXN, which runs at the armory through April 4.

The dancers’ first workshop for the commissioned performance began in August — the same month Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed black men, were killed by police.

During the exercise, two dancers began chasing a third dancer to a far corner of the room where they pretended beating him. He didn’t get up, nothing was said “but everyone in the room knew that Eric Garner was on everyone’s mind,” Sellars said.

“Black young men are killed by police quite often and that story wasn’t going away . it became clear people were really outraged, people were saying something has to change,” Sellars said. “One of the reasons that art exists is to give people a way to express extremely difficult things without violence and to articulate complex feelings.”

“The protest march is powerful but then what?” he said.

FLEXN comes amid a national debate about revisions to police training and policy.

The dancers’ freestyling pieces are based on “flex” a street dance that evolved from a Jamaican style popular in Brooklyn dance hall in the 1990s. It involves a range of styles including flexing, gliding — and “bone-breaking” whereby dancers dislocate parts of their body to make moves “you could not imagine are possible,” Sellars said.

One dance in the production deals with a subway fare beater. A dancer enacts a man jumping over a turnstile and getting into an argument with a police officer. An ensuing altercation ends with the “perpetrator” being shot and leaving his body to comfort his parents.

“What we know is that among those most likely to be victims of violence are young men of color,” said Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice who will sit on a panel titled “Restorative Justice.” She said she was participating because it was her hope the 11-night series “will be able to raise the urgency of these issues in a way that is not just about the devastation but really pointed toward action.”

Each of the dancers also created a piece about solitary confinement after Sellars invited them to respond to the armory photo installation by Richard Ross, who spent eight years documenting juveniles held in solitary confinement in 34 states.

“Thank God the mayor says it will not happen to 16 to 17 years old,” Sellars said referring to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to eliminate solitary confinement for those inmates and phase out its use for 18- to 21-year-olds by the beginning of next year. He said the dancers’ exploration of the topic gives insight to an issue “that perhaps is easily debated . but we don’t actually realize the weight of.”

Prior to each performance, a half-hour discussion will be led by educators, community leaders and public officials on a range of topics, including reforming Rikers Island, community policing and stop and frisk. Among the participants will be “young people who have been through this and can speak about it,” Sellars said.

“Most Americans treat these issues of violence in black neighborhoods with an imaginary distance,” he said. “It’s extremely important to have personal and grounded views in what is going on day-to-day in these neighborhoods and to hear personal testimony from a range of people.”

Sered added that the combination of the arts and public conversation is “a powerful tool for conveying that — wherever we live and whatever our experience — these issues belong to all of us to experience, to think about, to grapple with and to change.”

article by Ula Ilnytzky, Associated Press via bet.com

Camden Sophisticated Sisters Drill Team Performs on “DWTS” (VIDEO)

Camden Sophisticated SistersIn case you missed it last week, here is the inspiring story and performance of Camden, New Jersey’s drill team, the Camden Sophisticated Sisters, formed twenty-six years ago by Camden native and CNN Hero Tawanda “Wa-Wa” Jones, on ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars”:

If you’d like to help, donate or follow the Sophisticated Sisters, click here.

article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson

R.I.P. Maria Tallchief, America’s 1st Native-American Prima Ballerina

Maria Tallchief

The New York Times reports today that Maria Tallchief, daughter of an Oklahoma oil family who grew up on an Indian reservation, found her way to New York and became one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century, died on Thursday in Chicago.  She was 88.  Her daughter, the poet Elise Paschen, confirmed the death. Ms. Tallchief lived in Chicago.

Ms. Tallchief, a former wife and muse to the choreographer George Balanchine, achieved renown with Balanchine’s City Ballet, dazzling audiences with her speed, energy and fire. Indeed, the part that catapulted her to acclaim, in 1949, was the title role in the version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” one of many that Balanchine created for her.  In addition to “Firebird,” Balanchine created many striking roles for her, including those of the Swan Queen in his version of “Swan Lake,” the Sugar Plum Fairy in his version of “The Nutcracker,” Eurydice in “Orpheus” and principal roles in such plotless works as “Sylvia Pas de Deux,” “Allegro Brillante,” “Pas de Dix” and “Scotch Symphony.”

A daughter of an Osage Indian father and a Scottish-Irish mother, Ms. Tallchief left Oklahoma at an early age, but she was long associated with the region nevertheless. She was one of five dancers of Indian heritage, all born in Oklahoma at roughly the same time, who came to be called the Oklahoma Indian ballerinas; the others included her sister, Marjorie Tallchief, as well as Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau.  Growing up at a time when many American dancers adopted Russian stage names, Ms. Tallchief, proud of her Indian heritage, refused to do so, even though friends told her that it would be easy to transform Tallchief into Tallchieva.

 In 2007, PBS aired the documentary, “Maria Tallchief” about this Kennedy Center Honor recipient’s life and work.   To read more about Tallchief, click here.  To watch Tallchief narrate her stunning “Firebird” solo, click below:

article by Jack Anderson via nytimes.com; additional reporting by Lori Lakin Hutcherson

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”

Ballerina Misty Copeland Dances into Two-Book Deal

misty-copeland-hb

(Misty Copeland/Photo: Hello Beautiful) 

Ballet dancer Misty Copeland has a two-book deal.  Copeland, 30, is working on a memoir for Simon & Schuster‘s Touchstone imprint and picture book for G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, part of Penguin Group (USA). Copeland helped break ground as an African-American female soloist for the American Ballet Theatre. According to a release Wednesday by the two publishers, both of her books are scheduled for 2014.

In her memoir, Copeland is expected to describe the battles between her mother and her dance instructors while she was a teen over whether she should be allowed to pursue her career and who was her legal guardian.

article via blackamericaweb.com

Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe Wows with “Minus 16”, “Revelations”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims, with Jessye Norman, at right, at City Center. (Photo: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

On Wednesday evening Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater settled into City Center for its annual season with a nod to the past and a look to the future. Amid the din of shrill greetings — this was a gala, after all — Samuel Lee Roberts worked his way across the stage, jabbing the tips of his toes into the floor until his knees buckled and his spine contorted inelegantly. It was an arresting and, for Ailey, an unusual sight, yet few grasped that “Minus 16,” by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, had even begun.

This introduction requires a dancer to perform an improvised solo rooted in Gaga, a method of training that focuses more on sensation than technique. In “Minus 16,” based on excerpts from Mr. Naharin’s past works and a welcome addition to last season’s repertory, dancers trade their customary expressions of joy or sorrow for impassive stares.

‘Boyz n the Hood’ Reimagined by Interpretive Dancer Kyle Abraham

Kyle Abraham.jpg

The thirty-five-year-old choreographer Kyle Abraham has come a long way in just a few years. In 2006, he established his company, Abraham.In.Motion, and since then has produced dances that have earned him awards and critical acclaim. In December, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre will première a work that it commissioned from him. For someone whose career has taken off in such a big way, though, he retains a strong connection to his Pittsburgh roots, and shows great integrity in his dance-making, both of which were evident in his newest work, “Pavement,” which Abraham presented recently at Harlem Stage.

Abraham, who is African-American, went to high school in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a historically black neighborhood, and in several of his previous works he drew on his experiences there. For “Pavement,” he went back to 1991, to reimagine the film “Boyz n the Hood,” about gangs in South Central Los Angeles, which was released that summer. He used the film as a springboard for examining life in Pittsburgh’s African-American communities in the Hill District and East Liberty Homewood and reflecting on the state of the black American experience in the two decades since its release.

But Abraham’s conception was even more sweeping. He also wanted to look at the history that had preceded the strife represented in “Boyz n the Hood,” and found a pertinent source in “The Souls of Black Folk,” the 1903 book by W. E. B. Du Bois, whose essays became instrumental in African-Americans’ struggle for equality in the twentieth century. Du Bois’s text made no appearance in “Pavement,” but Abraham included a quote from it in the program, which hovered over the dance: “Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as a natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the ‘higher’ against the ‘lower’ races.” In the light of Du Bois’s words from more than a century ago, the realities as depicted in the film are sobering. From the perspective of 1991, when the ravages of H.I.V., crack addiction, and gang genocide were entrenched, not much seems to have gone right.

Continue reading “‘Boyz n the Hood’ Reimagined by Interpretive Dancer Kyle Abraham”

Rihanna Donates $100,000 to Feed Sandy Victims; Holds Benefit Concert

Rihanna performs during the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at the Lexington Avenue Armory on November 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Rihanna performs during the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show at the Lexington Avenue Armory on November 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In addition, Rihanna is donating $100,000 to the NYC Food Bank.  “It’s really difficult to see something so tragic going on and not be able to do anything about it,” she said in a recent interview. “There’s nothing you can control, it’s Mother Nature. It’s really sad what happened here.”

article via thegrio.com