Minding Mr. Mitchell's Baby

Out of cash, Dance Theatre of Harlem goes on hiatus and hunts for help

Boston Ballet, a troupe of similar size and age, recently announced an operating surplus of $650,000, crediting reduced expenses and more aggressive fundraising. Says Kaiser, "It's not that black and Latino communities aren't generous. It's just that their money tends to go to church, education, and health care. You need to change their perspective." He observes that the situation at Ailey was worse than DTH's current one before he oversaw a turnaround there, and attributes Ailey's present strength to a largely new board, people who contribute and locate new sources of revenue. "DTH can come back and thrive, but it won't without a sophisticated administrator to work with Arthur."

The calendars on Mitchell's conference-room wall show tentative bookings for the summer of 2005. His mind is on a new marketing plan. The middle class of the third world is growing, he points out, and DTH is full of faces these consumers identify with. The company has served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S.; why can't it represent a corporation? "My people will buy your product," Mitchell shills. "We've got a constituency worldwide waiting for a product for DTH to endorse." The company goes "where angels fear to tread"—Cairo, Staten Island. How can you beat 44 gorgeous dancers as a distribution system?

Mitchell won't abandon the idea of a company. "What's the point of having a school and training people if there's nowhere for them to go? Dance Theatre is still the only primarily African American ballet company in the world." This has always been his response to almost any question.

Mitchell rehearses Balanchine's Agon with Diana Adams at New York City Ballet in 1957. DTH performed Agon last month.
photo: Martha Swope
Mitchell rehearses Balanchine's Agon with Diana Adams at New York City Ballet in 1957. DTH performed Agon last month.

Even though he talks about contemporary marketing and the emerging third world, he's really trapped in the past. Ask him about the future and he talks about history. His self-reliance built the company, but now it's probably a liability. "What was my strength has become my Achilles' heel."

At 70, Mitchell sometimes seems to be fighting old battles, insisting unprompted that despite his immense popularity overseas, he won't abandon Harlem for expatriate life. "They won't make a Paul Robeson out of me." Nor will he have a nervous breakdown, like Alvin Ailey. Talk of deficits or a change in administrative structure is drowned out. He'd rather discuss his own triumphs—the bargains he found in costumes, the way he gets top-shelf collaborators to work for scale. "When I was running the show," he says, "everything was fine." That assertion might be the biggest obstacle now facing Dance Theatre of Harlem.

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