Arthur Mitchell, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, working with dancers after a class in 2003. (Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post)

Arthur Mitchell, who paved the way for other minority dancers by becoming one of the first black dancers to join a major ballet company and who helped start the acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem, died Sept. 19 at a hospital in New York City. He was 84.

The cause was renal failure, said a niece, Juli Mills-Ross.

Mr. Mitchell, who described himself as the Jackie Robinson of the ballet world, was hired by choreographer George Balanchine in 1955 to perform with the New York City Ballet and won over audiences and critics with his technical brilliance and charisma. Still, in an era when segregation was just beginning to crumble, his ascent to the upper echelon of dance met with many obstacles, from instructors who encouraged him to abandon ballet and take up other dance genres to shocked theatergoers who wrote letters expressing outrage about Mr. Mitchell being paired onstage with a white woman.

Balanchine refused to let the objections stifle Mr. Mitchell’s talent and created numerous leading roles for him, including the principal male part in the 1957 classic “Agon” and the character of Puck in 1962’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” When television programs invited the New York City Ballet to perform but requested that Mr. Mitchell sit out, Balanchine rebuffed them, saying the troupe would dance with Mr. Mitchell or not at all.

After nearly 15 years with Balanchine’s company, Mr. Mitchell struck out on his own and in 1969 co-founded an all-black dance school that eventually grew to include an all-black professional company. He said the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a year earlier filled him with a sense of urgency to start the school.

“When Dance Theatre of Harlem started, there was still a fallacy that black people could not do classical ballet,” Mr. Mitchell told the Toronto Star in 1995. “People said to me, ‘Arthur, you’re the exception.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I had the opportunity.’ ”


Mr. Mitchell in 1963. (Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Mr. Mitchell’s company has become one of the most sought-after dance ensembles in the world, performing everything from classical ballet to contemporary and jazz-inflected works.

Former Washington Post dance critic Alan Kriegsman once wrote, “Mr. Mitchell not only launched and empowered the careers of many excellent dancers but also changed forever the image of the African American dance professional.”

A host of financial problems in the 1990s and 2000s threatened the survival of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mr. Mitchell stepped down as the institution’s director in 2009, its 40th anniversary season, and announced that one of his former prima ballerinas, Virginia Johnson, would replace him.

At the 1993 ceremony in which Mr. Mitchell received the Kennedy Center Honors, Johnson said: “We’d all been turned down, told that there was no place for us. He gave us our dream, a chance to be measured by our movement and grace, and not by the color of our skin.”

Mr. Mitchell was also recognized with a 1994 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often called the “genius grant,” and with the National Medal of Arts in 1995.

'A street kid from Harlem'

Arthur Adams Mitchell Jr., whose father was a janitor, was born in New York on March 27, 1934. He was the oldest of five siblings and ran a paper route as a boy to help his family make ends meet.

Mr. Mitchell first showed interest in the arts when he was 10 years old and became a member of the Police Athletic League glee club. A few years later, a school guidance counselor saw Mr. Mitchell do the jitterbug and encouraged him to apply to New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts.

Not long after, Mr. Mitchell auditioned with a Fred Astaire-inspired tap routine and was accepted. He excelled in this environment, immersing himself in all disciplines of dance including jazz, modern and ballet. Upon his graduation in 1952, Mr. Mitchell declined a scholarship to Bennington College’s widely respected modern-dance program and instead chose to attend the School of American Ballet, the conservatory run by Balanchine that served as the training ground for his company, the New York City Ballet.

Some students’ parents bristled at the idea of their children dancing alongside a black man and complained that they didn’t want their daughters being paired with him for partnering exercises or recitals.

During his studies at the ballet school, Mr. Mitchell appeared on Broadway in a small role in the Truman Capote and Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers” (1954) and performed with the companies of Donald McKayle and Anna Sokolow, among others. Around this time, Mr. Mitchell was doing a brief performance stint in Europe when he received a telegram asking him to join the New York City Ballet.

“I said I would come home with one condition: that there be no publicity that a negro — at that time we used the word ‘negro’ — was breaking any kind of racial barrier. I wanted to get in the company on my own merits,” he told the Washington Times in 1993.

Mr. Mitchell made his debut with the New York City Ballet in 1955 in “Western Symphony” and two years later was cast as the lead male dancer in “Agon.” For this abstract, no-frills ballet, Balanchine eschewed the ornate glitz of a typical ballet costume and instead put Mr. Mitchell in a plain white T-shirt and black tights, and had his duet partner, Diana Adams, outfitted in a plain leotard.

Mr. Mitchell later told ABC News anchor Peter Jennings that Balanchine “purposely choreographed it so the intertwining of the arms and the bodies, the colors, along with the geometric patterns of the bodies, made the choreographies.” The dance’s spare style and its pairing of a black man with a white woman were pioneering, if not shocking, for 1950s audiences.

Balanchine and his business partner Lincoln Kirstein had a profound effect on Mr. Mitchell and the high expectations he set for his own company. “I’m still a street kid from Harlem whose father was a janitor, but wherever I went, their standards were my norm,” he said.

Between performances with the ballet company, Mr. Mitchell appeared on Broadway in the musical revue “Noel Coward’s Sweet Potato” (1968) and in a nightclub act with the chanteuse Eartha Kitt.

'Helping people . . . through art'

In the late 1960s, Mr. Mitchell’s career began to shift gears. He left the New York City Ballet in 1968, worked to establish a dance troupe in Spoleto, Italy, and set up a national ballet company in Brazil. However, as he headed from his New York home to the airport for one of many trips to Brazil, disturbing news came over the radio: King had been shot and killed.

Mr. Mitchell has said that he thought to himself: “I could wait for others to change things for black Americans. Here I am running around the world doing all these things — why not do them at home? I believe in helping people the best way you can; my way is through art.”

With that, he decided not to get on the plane and instead went home to Harlem. He began teaching dance in a garage, with only two students showing up to the first session. Initially, to appeal to a broad swath of kids, Mr. Mitchell kept the dress code lax — no tights required — and set steps to drum beats instead of classical music. Within months, he had about 400 students and had moved the class to a church basement. Because of the way children flocked to him, some called him “The Pied Piper of Dance.” Still, Mr. Mitchell was known for being a tough perfectionist in the classroom.

Mr. Mitchell and dance school co-founder Karel Shook, an internationally renowned ballet master who had been Mr. Mitchell’s mentor, expanded the fledging operation to include a professional company, which Mr. Mitchell hoped would give his students something to aspire to. Shook died in 1985.

From the start, Dance Theatre of Harlem was a success. In a review of a 1970 performance, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called the company “one of dance’s most promising ventures” and wrote, “No young company has made such progress in so short a time.”

Today, Dance Theatre of Harlem remains a predominantly black company but has expanded to include people of other backgrounds. Some of its best-known works include “A Streetcar Named Desire,” adapted from the Tennessee Williams play, and 1984’s “Creole Giselle,” which brushed the cobwebs off the old ballet standard “Giselle” and reset it in 19th-century Louisiana.

Artistic achievements aside, Dance Theatre of Harlem has nearly toppled on several occasions because of financial problems, leaving Mr. Mitchell’s business acumen open to criticism.

In 1990, facing the withdrawal of corporate sponsors and a reduction of government funding, it racked up an estimated $1.7 million deficit and had to cancel much of its season and lay off dancers. Only five years later, budget issues caused the company to cut staff members and more dancers, from 53 to 36. In 1997, dancers went on strike, and more fiscal woes followed in 2004, when the company rang up a $2.5 million deficit.

Mr. Mitchell had no immediate survivors.

A testament to his passion for dance and his belief in its transformative powers, he once said, “Anyone living without the arts in their lives is living in a desert.”