Arthur Mitchell

Balanchine’s Puck Protégé

In the mid 1960s I was fresh out of graduate school and a young faculty member at Reed College. Reed treated me exceedingly well and in 1966, thanks to a young faculty development grant, I was on a research leave at the Rockefeller University in New York. The leave proved to be highly productive for me professionally, but the opportunity to simultaneously avail myself of the cultural riches of New York City turned out to be an entirely unanticipated dividend.

I soon realized that I was especially drawn to dance, and I discovered the Alvin Ailey Company and the Joffrey Ballet which that year had its first season at New York’s City Center. But for me, a novice to all these wonders, it was the classical gravitas of the New York City Ballet that had me hooked, and I attended as many of its performances as I could afford in terms of both time and money. Over the years since, the specifics have faded, but one performance continues to stand out in my memory—that of Arthur Mitchell dancing Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Based on Shakespeare’s play of that name, and danced to the music of Mendelssohn, it had its world premiere in New York in January, 1962. Balanchine had created the role of Puck for Mitchell, his protégé, and I was fortunate to be able to see him still dancing the role four years later.

In the ballet, Puck is a mischief making sprite that one might expect to have an amusing but subordinate role. In Balanchine’s hands, even more than in Shakespeare’s play, he becomes the central character and this gave Mitchell a starring role. It’s Puck’s mistakes that create the dilemmas around which the plot turns, and of course it’s Puck who crafts its eventual denouement. I still have a vivid memory of a half-naked Arthur Mitchell scampering about the stage in a gauzy costume, his beautiful, brown body lightly oiled and dusted with glitter, glistening under the stage lights. While it is Puck’s misbehavior that drives the plot, it was Mitchell’s seemingly unbounded energy that drove the performance.

Photo by Sharon Perry

It is easy to see why Mitchell was a favorite of Balanchine, who is to be credited with promoting this immensely talented African American man at a time when it was far from the norm. Balanchine also actively encouraged Mitchell to form his own company, The Dance Theater of Harlem, and actively supported it once it was launched.

Additional Resources

  • Excerpt from a longer interview with Arthur Mitchell where he talks about racial issues that arose while he danced with NYCB
  • In depth article following Arthur Mitchell’s death in 2018 by Jennifer Dunning in The New York Times
  • To see the extent of Arthur Mitchell’s connections and influence in the arts, delve into MoBBallet’s constellation for Arthur Mitchell

Written by Stephen Karakashian

Banner image: Arthur Mitchell as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives

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