Tag Archives: Dance Theatre of Harlem

Rebellious Daughter: A Tribute to Mr. Arthur Mitchell.

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.


Broken, full of dreams

“Summary: First performed by American Ballet Theater on April 22 1948, Fall River Legend is the story of Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts spinster who was tried for the ax-murder of her father and stepmother. Although Lizzie was actually acquitted, in the ballet she is convicted and hanged. De Mille creates a portrait of a shy, sensitive but receptive girl, turned into a murderess by her father’s psychological abandonment in favor of his second wife, a sour, jealous, manipulative woman who frustrates Lizzie’s budding romance with her minister. Gothic in tone and deeply perceptive in its depiction of the consequences of love thwarted, Fall River Legend reveals a truth deeper than reality.” From http://agnesdemilledances.com

Fall River Legend is one of my favorite ballets. The masterful choreography by Agnes de Mille was matched with an epic score by Morton Gould. Fall River did the thing that art can do at its best: be a vehicle for feeling. Fall River articulated the hush of hidden things, longings, humiliation, humor, frailty, the dream of the mother.

And those goddamn consecutive pirouettes, from fourth-to-fourth, that changed direction. Fall forward! Put on the brakes!

For me, Virginia Johnson of Dance Theatre of Harlem, defined the role of Lizzie Borden. Of course, she managed to make those damn turns look easy, as one skipping into the throes of first love. Those turns…not perfect, never perfect, but so fully alive. Virginia spoke to us in how she picked up the axe. Picked it up and hid it in her skirt. The horror of realization. The chill up the spine.

How does one make sense of the need for sexual love in a world like Lizzie’s, that is, 19th century religious New England? How does one meet that need within when something about you doesn’t meet the society’s standards of worthiness in that area? How does a spinster feel good about her need for sexuality, when, at least externally, she has been stripped of it? How could Lizzie love herself when love was not reflected to her? How do you see past the reflection, or without a reflection? These were some of the underlying issues that Lizzie faced. I was fifteen the first time I saw Fall River, hardly a spinster, but for different reasons, outcast. As such, I was also desperate to make sense of those questions.

Lizzie falls in love with the pastor, and in doing so, reveals herself to be more than her pain. She is a sexual being. For this, she is punished by others for reflecting what they had denied in her and denied in themselves, through her, which was of course, her beauty. Her beauty, unique in this world. Her beauty, broken, but still full of dreams. Just like all of us. (Blade Runner 2049 airhorns!).

Where was I? Lizzie was punished by the preacher, whom she felt betrayed her. She was punished by her jealous mother-in-law. Lizzie was punished by her father’s indifference. And it doesn’t end there: she was punished by a community that tried to console, but lacked the togetherness of spirit and rituals that give a warm coat to the cold night of grief.

Lizzie kills her father and step-mother. Please, understand, I am not advocating killing anyone, but why is it, that when men kill the bad guy, they are seen as heros, but when women kill the bad guy, they are labeled, shunned, imprisoned, burnt at the stake?

The towns-peoples’ rejection of Lizzie is a rejection of themselves. They are unwilling to look at their own failure in the matter, or to even recognize that they have a responsibility towards Lizzie, and so they chose Lizzie as a scapegoat. In other words, they choose to reinforce an idea of separation between themselves and the “other.” That’s how we hate. Lizzie had no one. Her tragedy points us in the direction of love.

I could not have articulated all of that upon my first viewing of the ballet in 1985 at age 15, but I could feel the mystery that it stirred within me. That first experience of Fall River was one of the few examples I remember then, of seeing a complicated, thoughtful woman character, through the medium of art, that looked like me, inside and out. For the first time, I saw myself onstage, especially through Lizzie, but also through the predominantly black community portrayed by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s version, dealing with issues about being human in the way that only stories can.

If you’re not in the story, you’re not fully in the collective consciousness. So art, and in this case, Fall River danced by Dance Theatre of Harlem, put me in my own narrative. Dig that.


%d bloggers like this: