By Jon Teeuwissen, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Advisor for Dance
Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell was a trailblazer and a man with a mission. He made it his life’s work to break barriers. He was the first African American principal dancer at New York City Ballet. It wasn’t enough that he had an illustrious career as a dancer. Upon hearing of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was inspired to return to Harlem where he could participate with the Civil Rights Movement through what he knew best – the arts.
As he had done at New York City Ballet, Mitchell wanted to dispel the myth that Blacks weren’t suitable to dance classical ballet. He also wanted to provide what he perceived as the most important ingredient to any young person’s ability to achieve success – opportunity. He helped to level the playing field by granting access to all. Mitchell started teaching ballet classes in the basement of a church in Harlem. From that humble beginning, together with ballet master Karel Shook, he created Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). This professional ballet company, predominantly of dancers of color, would go on to attain international renown and perform to enthusiastic audiences all over the world.
The first full-length ballet to enter DTH’s repertoire was Creole Giselle. Considered a masterwork in the classical ballet canon, Giselle is a romantic story about the doomed love of a peasant girl and a deceitful nobleman. Originally set in Germany, Mitchell adapted the classic Giselle by moving the locale to the bayous of Louisiana amongst a community of free Blacks. There was substantial research that went into the creation of Creole Giselle, and every member of the cast was given the name of an actual person from the period (check out the name on Giselle’s tombstone in the final minutes of the ballet). Frederick Franklin, DTH’s artistic advisor of Ballets Russes fame, staged the ballet, recreating the original Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot choreography, to the original Adolphe Adam’s score. Premiered at the Coliseum in London in 1984, Creole Giselle won the Laurence Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of Broadway’s Tony) for “Best New Dance Production.”
Three years later, Creole Giselle was filmed at Danmarks Radio in Aarhus, Denmark for broadcast on NBC. I had the privilege of participating in this exciting adventure, as it was during my tenure as DTH’s company manager. Seeing Creole Giselle again on film brought back glorious memories. But even though I had seen it so many times before in the theater, I was still taken aback by Virginia Johnson’s brilliant interpretation of the lead role: her dancing, her beautiful expressive face, her convincing and dramatic mad scene at the end of Act I, and her ethereal movement as Giselle’s spirit in Act II. She refers to the role of Giselle as the highlight of her career. Johnson succeeded Mitchell as artistic director of DTH.
Mitchell’s innovation and tenacity left the world with a unique and significant Creole Giselle, as well as a legacy that is DTH. To those people of color who were told they couldn’t dance ballet, he said “you can.” Mitchell had a saying – “either you hit the high C, or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with the color of your skin.”
Mitchell was a force to reckon with. He was a mentor to me, and I worked with him very closely for three years. Although I left DTH in 1989, I maintained a relationship with him until he passed in 2018. In the last conversation I had with Mr. Mitchell, he shared that his doctor had told him he was carrying anger, and that he needed to let it go, and surrender. Mitchell’s response was “Surrender? I don’t know the meaning of the word!”
Here’s to Mr. Mitchell and his refusal to ever accept “no” as an answer. Please enjoy Creole Giselle, but don’t wait too long as the link below is only good through midnight on June 19th.