NEW YORK (CelebrityAccess) — Arthur Mitchell, a ground-breaking ballet dancer who achieved international acclaim as the first African-American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, has died at the age of 84.
According to the New York Times, his death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of heart failure.
Born and raised in New York, Mitchell pursued an education in classical ballet, first at the city’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, and then at the New York City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet.
His debut as a professional dancer came in 1955 when he performed in the New York City Ballet’s production of Western Symphony, marking the first time an African-American dancer had performed with the company.
The following year, he rose to the position of Principal Dancer with the company, and performed in all major works in its repertoire and was the first black dancer to achieve international acclaim.
The following year, the famed George Balanchine, who was the choreographer and director of the NYCB, created a pas de deux in his ballet “Agon” specifically pairing Mitchell with white female dancer Diana Adams, making a strong political statement about segregation. Despite the controversy the pairing sparked, it hailed by critics and audiences for both its beauty and complexity.
Mitchell and Adams performing the pas de deux from Argon in 1960.
“Can you imagine the audacity to take an African-American and Diana Adams, the essence and purity of Caucasian dance, and to put them together on the stage?” Mitchell told the New York Times in January. “Everybody was against him [Balanchine]. He knew what he was going against, and he said, ‘You know my dear, this has got to be perfect.’ ”
After the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Mitchell was inspired to take a leadership role for African-Americans in the world of dance and the following year, he partnered with Karel Shook to found the Dance Theater of Harlem.
While the company went on a hiatus in the mid-2000s due to debt, it returned to life in 2012 and currently performs regularly at city center. The school itself has more than 300 students.
In 2011, Mitchell was named artistic director emeritus of Dance Theater. Most recently, he oversaw the revival of “Tones II,” one of his older ballets that will be performed next year during the theatre’s 50th anniversary.
Mr. Mitchell’s honors include the 1971 Capezio Award, the 1975 Dance Magazine Award and, in 1993, a Kennedy Center Honor and a Handel Medallion from New York City.
No immediate family members survive, the New York Times said.