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The Dance Theatre of Harlem By Lincoln Kirstein

[This essay appeared in early DTH programs circa 1971. Lincoln Kirstein was the Jewish American impresario who, with George Balanchine, co-founded New York City Ballet, and invited Arthur Mitchell to become a member. His use of terms such as “Afro-American tragedy,” “cultural accommodation,” and “restricted sector” reflects the cautious locution of diversity during the era of civil rights.]

The Dance Theatre of Harlem is a unique American phenomenon. Primarily, it is an independent artistic institution with criteria of aims and quality guided purely by rules of art. Inescapably, its very existence has other implications, cultural and political. As for pure art, it embodies the most correct available tradition of classic academic dancing, or that ballet that has graced European opera houses of nearly four centuries. The classic ballet speaks the language of virtuosity, just as bel canto singing breathes the acrobacy of song. The ballet dancer is an athlete trained for competition; nothing in his training favours improvisation. Virtuosity is a hard school; the acrobat’s a hazardous profession. The classic dancer’s training instructs for that area where human anatomy fuses with solid geometry. Its structures are strict, and its constructs stable. The aim is absolute legibility, enhanced by extreme physical action. It is governed and excited by music. In our century there have been attempts to discredit the classic academy as a strait-jacket for self expression. Dancers who express only themselvestheir selves, and by expressing only a single self their improvisation, enter no repertory past their own performance. The academic dancer expresses the grand design, the conscious patterns employing the human body in motion as exercised in important repertories by master choreographers. These are dramatic rituals which are poetic images of the chief forms of collective humane activity.

The classic ballet is rooted in Europe; it commenced in Italy four and a half centuries ago, somewhere between the ducal courts of Naples, Milan, Florence and Ferrara, where swordsmen and equestrians also trained their pupils in the noble economy of music-measured steps as aids in the martial skills of fencing and riding. France took from Italy, then Russia borrowed from France. In our century we have seen the overflow of this tradition into Asia, eastward; westward to America. The dominant repertory, American and European, of the second half of our century, has been set by a Russian-American, George Balanchine, who entered an imperial academy in 1914, graduated from a state school seven years later, and in 1934, after serving as the last balletmaster for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, settled in New York, to found a new national school and company.

Some twenty-one years ago, a handsome boy presented himself to Balanchine as an aspirant. His body was well suited to the classic dance; he was personally elegant and had an excellent musical ear. Also, he was very black. Twenty years ago this fact was far more, and yet far less important than it appears today. The notion of a black ballet dancer was then all but unthinkable. True, there were many excellent black performers in the film and music hall, but their genre was either popular or vaguely ethnic. But Arthur Mitchell had a vision of himself as a purely classic dancer. He was told immediately that he was not acceptable merely as a member of “corps de ballet.” Either he would be a soloist or first dancer or nothing. Training was easy in no way. Outraged parents complained that they would not permit their daughters to work with a black man. But he danced and the daughters learned to love him. He became an important star with the New York City Ballet (in which he still dances), and when this company appeared in Moscow in 1962, his elegance, control and dramatic presence were generously recognised. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, something in the nature of a religious conversion motivated Mitchell. This had been preparing itself for years, probably since birth. But in the one terrible day, the dancer, a boy no longer, decided to make his profession speak for his people. On every continent, in our time, former slave populations are restive. Liberated for a century in name only, the local situations become more desperate. The politics of violence, confrontation, revolution have attracted the latent energies triggered by indignation, frustration and despair. The black inheritance, rich in music, dance and plastic sensibility, was kindled brilliantly in desperate areas, but rarely in group action. Mitchell, in his own personal life, had experienced the depth and bitterness of the Afro-American tragedy. But he decided his path was not that of a militant activist but rather that of a militant artist. There were those who considered him vain; at worst disloyal, at best ill-advised.

The ballet was notoriously a court form, appanage of rulers who maintained slave-holding societies. But Mitchell had learned that transient national forms were simply dialects and not authentic or authoritative speech. He had seen how Balanchine had given a new accent to ballet by emphasising an American athleticism which borrowed more from gymnasium and ball games than imperial ballrooms. Mitchell dedicated himself to creating a black classic ballet company.

This he has been able to do in breath-takingly short order. To pretend that his company is comparable to older, established ones, is remote from his intention. But the efficiency, discipline, talent and promise of the Dance Theatre of Harlem is incontestable. Historically, it is an important step in the cultural accommodation of this country at a critical moment. Morally, it proves that the focused will, whatever the restricted sector, can triumph. Mitchell’s achievement stands as a metaphor for all that is most hopeful in the United States today. His performers are, first of all, dancers, trained in the classic school. Secondarily, they derive from the ghetto, the inner city of Harlem, New York. Incidentally, they are black. But let it be remembered that they are first, last and all the time, artists, and this does the more honour to their race.

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