Minding Mr. Mitchell’s Baby


Arthur Mitchell, the Jackie Robinson of the ballet world, is angry. Dance Theatre of Harlem, the predominantly African American neoclassical ballet company he founded in 1969, recently announced a deficit of $2.3 million, laid off its dancers, and canceled performances for the 2004–2005 season. Following the recent gutting of the company’s staff and the resignation of all but three board members, the bad news fit all too neatly into a pattern of financial and administrative instability stretching back to a similar hiatus in 1990 and including a chronic inability to hold on to an executive director.

Former board members and outside arts executives attribute the problems to Mitchell’s incompetence as an administrator and his stubborn refusal to stick with artistic direction. Some even insinuate that he’s tried to profit at the company’s expense. For his part, Mitchell blames external forces. During an interview at DTH’s school on West 152nd Street—which is still running, mostly on volunteer labor—he traced the troubles to canceled engagements in 1990 and slashes in arts funding, especially following 9-11.

He also blames the board of directors. The idea to bring in an executive director, he says, was his, but the board is responsible for the heavy turnover; they did the firing, and he had to jump back in and take up the slack. “So then this myth comes in that I want to do administration.”

He says it’s board members who are incompetent—well-meaning, but mired in mediocrity, unable to pull their weight. Some, he claims, still haven’t paid for their gala seats from two years ago. He challenges his detractors to face him in front of the press: “I can disprove whatever they say, because it is in the audited public statements.” The current difficulties were first reported by Crain’s New York Business in April.

Mitchell’s devotion to DTH is unquestionable, from his start-up investment of $25,000 35 years ago to his recent mortgaging of his apartment as collateral for a loan. A good portion of the current deficit is owed to him. “It’s my baby,” he says. “Who else is going to feed it?” His mentor, George Balanchine, told him he would have to sacrifice everything in service to ballet, and he took the lesson to heart.

The accusations of “difficulty” aren’t as easy to brush off. Mitchell admits to being “very aggressive, outspoken, honest. Some people can’t take that.” He’s a formal patriarch, insisting that everyone call him “Mr. Mitchell.” He clearly doesn’t trust the board. His hip replacement four years ago, he says, signaled weakness to them, “but little did they know I would come back bigger, badder, and stronger.” And although he has publicly conceded the need for an administrative partner, finding one he’d consider an equal isn’t easy.

When former executive directors tried running things, various reports say, Mitchell micromanaged until the titular manager resigned. Mitchell clearly thinks he can do better. DTH is his dream, spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As the first African American dancer to join the New York City Ballet, in 1955, Mitchell helped dispel the myth that blacks couldn’t do classical ballet. DTH—the company, the school, and the dancers it spread around the country—effectively put the myth to rest.

But there was more to the crusade than service to ballet. Opening a school in a Harlem garage in 1969 was his corrective for the riots he’d experienced as a boy there in the ’40s. He emphasizes how he gives children discipline and structure, how his students aren’t out doing drugs or stealing. He brags of bringing the magic of live theater to urban youth with DTH’s community outreach program.

“I’m a kid from the ‘hood in Harlem,” he says, who, if it had not been for the theater, would probably be a crime statistic. Dapper, cultivated, and carefully articulate, he reminds you that he’s the son of a janitor incarcerated when Mitchell was 12, and that he supported his family all by himself.

All by himself. The phrase echoes through Mitchell’s story. “People forget that I was the only one”—the only black in NYCB during his 15-year tenure. “When Dance Theatre was smaller,” he says, “I did everything,” learning about accounting and lighting design. Especially at the beginning, Mitchell had help—a co-founder in the great ballet teacher Karel Shook, surrogate parents and board members in Balanchine and NYCB founder Lincoln Kirstein, newly available grants, and huge stores of goodwill. But Mitchell’s vision and drive made the venture work. Self-sufficiency is a hard habit to break.

“I’m a man who happens to be black,” he says, “not a black man. And you’re going to respect me as a man first. And a lot of people don’t like that. There is a perception, because of skin color, I should be shucking and jiving. No. I am Arthur Mitchell.” He lifts his chin and twists a hand in the pose of the Russian aristocrat he says Balanchine and Kirstein raised him to be.

Against this backdrop, the battles of the present seem relatively small. Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center and a volunteer consultant for DTH, says its problems aren’t insurmountable. Partly as a result of its community outreach programs, the company filled houses wherever it went, and earned income in the last fiscal year was higher than ever.

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.

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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