The White House was a familiar place for Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He claimed to have been the guest of every president since John F. Kennedy. He’d dined there so often he knew the waiters by name.
Mitchell, who died Wednesday at 84, was ballet royalty. The groundbreaking former principal dancer of New York City Ballet was also the first black ballet star of international fame. That wasn’t enough; Mitchell had grander ambitions. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. spurred him to take his own stand for social justice by launching a ballet school and company, from scratch (initially, in a garage), for black dancers. This was one of the best ideas of the 20th century.
But Mitchell was also a realist. He had no illusions about why he and his company — a premier institution and international brand — were so often brought to the White House. Showcasing this elegant, trailblazing outfit was a way to demonstrate one’s appreciation for art, education and diversity, all in a swoop. Getting concrete support — funding — was another matter.
Mitchell knew how the game was played — and how it would end, with his company as cash-strapped as ever. By 2006, when President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush hosted a black-tie dinner to honor Mitchell, he looked a little tired of it.
I was one of the 80 or so guests that night in the State Dining Room, where Mitchell was more interested in chatting up the wait staff weaving around the tables with trays than in making small talk with government insiders and arts officials.
It was unusual for a journalist to be seated at such a dinner rather than standing with the press pool peeking in from a doorway. But it was a desperate time for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, in debt and on hiatus for the previous year and a half. Catherine Reynolds, the philanthropist and entrepreneur, was chairwoman of the ballet company’s board at the time, and she had turned to Laura Bush, a dance lover, for help. Thus, the dinner, the dancers and the dance critic. But like Mitchell, my mind wasn’t on the splendidness, although Al Green and Audra McDonald sang, and DTH performed. They couldn’t compete. The most interesting person in the room was Mitchell.
He had that trick of being exquisitely formal and playful at the same time. His face was square, sharp-boned, magazine-cover beautiful. He knew, as the best performers do, when to wait and when to seize the spotlight, as he did after the audience joined Green in belting out his soul hit “Let’s Stay Together.” Mitchell pulled Laura Bush onstage, whirled her around and turned the presidential affair into a dance party.
“I always lead with the downstage eye,” he told me afterward, when I asked him what it was like to dance with the first lady. (Being around ballerinas had taught him not to dish on his dance partners.) He demonstrated, somehow managing to make the eye closest to me brighter, magnetic, and with my gaze glued to this gleaming North Star, he took my hand, and suddenly we were spinning around the East Room floor.
Mitchell was a natural prince. When a White House guard, seeing me with my notepad, thought I’d escaped from the press pool and told me to leave, Mitchell set him straight with a crispness that caused the guard to sputter an apology and vanish.
He was a natural leader. He never abandoned DTH, not when the dancers went on strike, not when the money ran out, not when it had to shut down. He kept promoting it and being an ambassador after stepping away so that in 2009, his former ballerina Virginia Johnson could take over as director and streamline it for leaner times.
But perhaps his greatest quality was this: Mitchell was never satisfied. Those artists who worked under his perfectionist eye can attest to this. He made it clear at that White House party. The glitz wasn’t enough. Mitchell had in mind something big, beyond himself. He wanted a miracle, and he deserved one.
He was, as usual, thinking ahead.
“I hope this opens the door, that dance becomes a line item in the federal budget,” he told me that night, “so we can take the arts all across America.”