Arthur Mitchell, a charismatic dancer with the 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 the 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.
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 George Balanchine ensured him a place in American ballet history.
In the first, in “Agon,” a trailblazing masterwork of 20th-century ballet that premiered 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.
In the January interview, Mr. Mitchell described Balanchine’s challenge.
“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?” Mr. Mitchell 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 later, 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 role, 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.
The next year, he founded a school and a professional ballet company called the Dance Theater of Harlem with Karel Shook, a friend and longtime mentor. .
A complete obituary will appear shortly.
Daniel Slotnik contributed reporting