By Dance Theatre of Harlem
For 50 years, Dance Theatre of Harlem has provided access to ballet for all. Comprised of an international touring company, a training school and a celebrated arts education and community engagement program, Dancing Through Barriers®, DTH demonstrates the power of art to transform lives.
Mitchell with young students in Harlem
Arthur Mitchell became the first permanent African American principal male dancer of a major ballet company in 1955, when he was selected by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet. He performed for 15 years with the company, rising to the rank of premier danseur. The first African American to achieve this status, he danced in virtually all the ballets in the company’s repertoire.
Co-founders Arthur Mitchell, Karel Shook and Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers (1969) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
In 1968, upon learning of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook were inspired to provide the children of Harlem the opportunity to study dance and transform their lives.
Arthur Mitchell in front of Church of the Master (1970/1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
The Church of the Master was one of the first spaces that Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook used to teach classes.
In the fall of 1969, Arthur Mitchell purchased a dance floor and ballet barres and began teaching classes to children in the basement of the Church of the Master.
“The gymnasium had an observers’ galley along one side, so we instituted a policy of open rehearsals each Wednesday afternoon to which school children, senior citizens and club groups were invited."
Karel Shook from "The First Ten Years"
Arthur Mitchell, Alva Gimbel and Karel Shook ("circa. 1970") by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
“One day the actress/singer Benay Venuta brought with her Mrs. Alva B. Gimbel. She watched the rehearsal with growing emotion and when it was over, she told Arthur that if he could find a building, she would present it to us. He needed no further motivation, and soon, as the result of a chance conversation with a gypsy cab driver, found an empty garage and warehouse with two stories and an ample basement which was for sale on 152nd Street.”
Karel Shook from “The First Ten Years”
The garage at 466 W. 152nd Street (1969/1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
"Transactions were made, and Mrs. Gimbel presented us with a permanent home. The building was renovated by Hardy, Holtzman and Pfeiffer for three hundred and sixty- five thousand dollars."
Karel Shook from "The First Ten Years"
Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell during renovations of the garage at 466 W. 152nd Street (1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
During construction, many changes were made to the building to make it suitable for dance. Sprung floors, ballet barres, mirrors and dressing rooms were necessary additions.
Lydia Abarca and Company men rehearsing "Ode to Otis" (1969) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
In the early years, Arthur Mitchell choreographed several works for the company. The first ballet Mitchell choreographed was "Ode to Otis" by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.
Arthur Mitchell and the dancers of Dance Theatre of Harlem (1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
On January 8, 1971, Dance Theatre of Harlem made its official New York City debut at the Guggenheim Museum.
“The Guggenheim performance was incredible. I was sitting behind Mrs. Gimbel, watching her face. She had her silver top cane and hat on. I was leaning from side to side over her shoulder trying to see her expressions and the performance. She seemed to definitely be enjoying herself.”
Arthur Mitchell onstage at the Apollo leading a lecture-demonstration (1976) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
DTH’s community education and outreach program provides the opportunity to become acquainted with the discipline of dance. This 90-minute lecture-demonstration, includes an explanation of ballet, a demonstration of rehearsal techniques and a mini-performance.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem in Arthur Mitchell’s "Rhythmetron" with music by Marlos Nobre (1970) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem
The Dance Theatre of Harlem in Arthur Mitchell’s "Rhythmetron" with music by Marlos Nobre
Initially, Dance Theatre of Harlem women wore the traditional classical ballet style of pink tights and pink pointe shoes. Breaking from a 300-year tradition, the dancers dyed their tights and shoes to match their unique, individual skin tone. The wardrobe department codified the technique with a blend of RIT dyes (a popular brand of fabric dye used), creating a recipe card for each dancer. Applying pressed powder on the ribbons and shoes seamlessly blends the two together. Matching tights and pointe shoes to skin tone became a trademark of Dance Theatre of Harlem and is now practiced by dancers all over the world.
Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company. ("circa. 1970") by Dance Theatre of HarlemDance Theatre of Harlem
Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem Company
Arthur Mitchell created the V formation for his ballet, "Tones." The pose was repeated many times through the years. "Tones" premiered in June, 1970 with an original score by Tania León.
“It is a lot more than just a ballet company. It’s a sophisticated art form that was born in the streets of Harlem.”
Emma Soames, London Evening Standard
Photographs by Marbeth
Copyright held by Dance Theatre of Harlem
Curated by Judy Tyrus