Death has a way of waking us up, for a while. Yesterday, after hearing about the death of Arthur Mitchell, I retrieved my daughter from kindergarten with immense gratitude and received her love in full return. I was talking to Mr. Mitchell in my head the whole time, saying that I was sorry he never met my daughter. He should see her feet! I imagined him standing with us in the playground of the Nathan Hale Elementary School. I said to her, “I know you don’t like to perform on demand, but this is Arthur Mitchell. He’s a very special person and you have to point your feet for him,” and if she resisted, it wouldn’t matter, because he had a way of making people want to point their feet!
And I thought about how different it is to be a kid nowadays. Little girls and boys are steeped in ballet culture from an early age. You can buy a tutu at Target for goodness’ sake, whereas tutus, back in the day, were a right of passage. You couldn’t just buy one, anywhere, like a gun.
My daughter, Colibri, and I have a book about a dancing brontasaurus named Brontorina, who experiences predjudice among other limitations, but who continues to follow her heart. Finally, a community of children convince one skeptical teacher to come to Brontorina’s aid. It is easy to see through a child’s eyes, but applying Brontorina’s message into the real world is quite another matter. We adults know that this is a story about racism, a word that fires the trigger hairs of every American.
Brontorina is also an inspiring story about overcoming one’s limitations with the help of one’s community, because nothing big can be achieved alone. And about opening our minds in a way that will allow us to include everyone. That is what Arthur Mitchell strove to do. He was a black man.
Now we have books about little black girls who take ballet class and become ballerinas. I am a girl in that story. I want us to remember, and for our children to remember, how people fought to make the art form accessible to all. And to remember that sometimes you have to believe in something with all your heart. Mr. Mitchell fell in love with ballet. He, a black man, gave the world permission to allow everyone to love ballet, that is, to see things in a new light.
I meditate daily on the cost of change.
When someone that you love dies, for a while, everything reminds you of them. This morning it was overcast. Suddenly the sun burst through the clouds, and it was Mr. Mitchell’s sun bursting into the room, into the studio, shocking, purposeful, burning, determined, relentless.
I remember that sunlight smile as he offered his hand to be led by the ballerina to center-stage for his signature bow at the end of the performance. For years, while in the corps de ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I dreamed of one day being the ballerina to get Mr. Mitchell from the wings, and when that moment finally came, it was a cherished honor, a moment when all our disagreements vanished, and I was so proud to receive his knowing gaze.
Last year, we spoke on the phone for what I knew would be the last time. Even though his health was failing, his voice was as sure as ever. Hearing it made all my cells stand up in salute. He was organizing a performance and wanted me to return to dance Firebird. I laughed, as it’s been years since I stood on pointe. But our conversation was warm. He had softened over the years and so had I.
Dear Mr. Mitchell,
I know you can hear me. I feel you hearing me. I want to talk to you as never before, while you’re still around for a few days, overhead, making the rounds. I could not sleep last night because of all of the souls here on earth, especially me, who are trying to contact you now. A comedienne recently said that when she dies, she wants everyone who ever loved her to take off from work. It was funny, the way she said it. I took today off just so I could talk to you in a way that I never could face-to-face. You just had this way of overpowering everything around you.
Sometimes, talking one-on-one, you would drop your performer’s armor and I could hear you, like when you told me over and over again that I had to wear the mantle, and I tried to keep myself from buckling at the knees. I am one of yours. I didn’t know my father, so any male in my life was bound to be resented. I don’t have words to say how sorry I am. I was such a jealous daughter. You tried to teach me how to stand in my power. I came to you already broken. I was fighting for what was mine like a wild dog. I’m sorry for that. You saw me as “smart” and as a “pure dancer.” As a black girl, I desperately needed to be acknowledged for having something that was good. I’d been beaten. All I knew was how to beat myself and the others around me with my disdain. In your own words, you said you wanted us to look like hungry dogs, and I saw the beauty in that. I was like a Bladerunner, hacking at my weaknesses. I thought I had to break myself in order to understand where I began. You warned me, but I didn’t listen. I had yet to learn how to trust, how to love.
I remember the time my complications first met up with your complications…I was at DTH in the summer of 1987, at the age of 17, dancing with the Ensemble under Nancy Shaffenburg. We were finished for the day, so I went upstairs to watch the main company, as had become my habit. You stormed out of studio 3 after raging at the dancers. You spotted me in your crosshairs and shouted, “Oh, you’re the one from Madame Darvash! (like that wasn’t a good thing), and marched abruptly into your office. Thank God for Sharon Williams-Duncan for saving us in those days. She has glory, under God.
I didn’t know your middle name was Adam, until yesterday, but how fitting. You were the first. I can’t imagine what that cost you. In yesterday’s New York Times article, Jennifer Dunning wrote about your premier with New York City Ballet. She said it was in Western Symphony in 1955. She writes that, “Years later, Mr. Mitchell recalled hearing gasps and at least one racist comment from the audience when he entered the stage that night.” (Arthur Mitchell is Dead at 84; Showed the Way for Black Dancers. nytimes.com)
But I remember you telling that story very differently. In my recollection, your premier was in Swan Lake. You’d asked Mr. Balanchine not to write a press release. You didn’t want there to be any controversy stirred up before you hit the stage. I think that was a brilliant move on your part by the way. Besides, dancing Swan Lake is hard enough. I’ve seen people piss their pants with fear. Anyway, when you stepped out onto the stage, someone shouted, “Oh my God! There’s a nigger on the stage!” And then some patrons started to exit. Some of the Balanchine dancers were quite young, and their parents had them removed from the company, because they didn’t want their daughters to be near a black man. That’s the way I remember you telling it, and I want people to know. We have to tell our own history or it will be erased.
By the way, you were right about it being a mistake for me to go to Boston Ballet after DTH went on hiatus. I couldn’t understand why you felt so betrayed at the time. Honestly, it surprised me. I see now that being in a white company was never the point. The point was to continue to celebrate what we had in the hard times. You needed me then, but I was too caught up in my own agenda to understand that. You know how hard it is to let go.