By Walter Rutledge
On April 25, 2011, Dance Theatre of Harlem held its Inaugural Vision Gala at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse in Lincoln Center. The event had a duel purpose, to raise money for the scholarships for students and to honor Dance Theatre of Harlem Co- Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Arthur Mitchell with the fbirst-ever Vision Award. The event, hosted by actress Victoria Rowell, included dinner, dancing and performances by students from the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble and special guest artists, Matthew Prescott and American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland.
Mitchell knows how to make an entrance; he entered the reception with the evening’s Honorary Chair opera diva Jessye Norman. Once inside Artistic Director Virginia Johnson and Executive Director Laveen Naidu joined Mitchell and Norman for a much-anticipated photo-op. As the evening progressed it quickly became apparent that this was Arthur Mitchell’s night.
There is no greater honor then to receive the esteem and admiration of our friends and family. Looking around the room there were former dancers who were now teachers, choreographers and directors, perfectly postured aspiring dancers, and children whose faces glowed with life’s possibilities. They were all there because of the vision and sacrifice of the man Ruth Page lovingly referred to in her book Page By Page as “Father Mitchell”.
Self-determination is the right of all people. For Americans of African decent obtaining this right has required unwavering commitment, and unflinching courage. The need for change was eloquently echoed by former slave Frederick Douglas, reiterated by W.E.B. DuBois, legislated through the efforts of Adam Clayton Powell jr., and paid for in blood with the assassination of Martin Luther King. The death of Dr. King became Mitchell’s call to action.
When he first purposed his idea of establishing a ballet company in Harlem that would cater to the community, he was met with dismay and mistrust. The apprehension was not just from the downtown dance community, but also from his uptown neighbors. This was 1969 the era of the Civil Rights Movement; Mitchell understood that the Negro had just reached the precipice, and many could not yet see that Black pride was just beyond the horizon.
Mitchell invested his lifesaving in to his vision. He based the concept on his mentor George Balanchine’s model of a school first, then a company. Mitchell quickly proved his detractor wrong, and in two short years, a neoclassical ballet company named Dance Theatre of Harlem made its debut at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Now forty years later we were here honoring the man who brought classical ballet to Harlem. He led by example, empowering young people to turn dreams into reality. I always forget how tall Arthur Mitchell really is. In person he stands about five foot nine inches, but in reality he is a giant among men.
In Photos 1) Victoria Rowell, Arthur Mitchell, Jessye Norman 2) Laveen Naidu and Virginia Johnson 3) Virginia Johnson and company
Photo Credit: 1&2) Judy Tyrus
Video by Visionaryproject