Friday, April 13, 2018

92Y presents a tribute to Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell
dancing in George Balanchine's Agon
(photo: Martha Swope)

presented by

Arthur Mitchell--who, in 1955, brought Black excellence to Balanchine's New York City Ballet as a principal dancer and, in 1969, founded historic Dance Theatre of Harlem--is, at age 84, a stone-cold hoot. Sure, it took a couple of folks to help the man to his chair at 92Y's Buttenweiser Hall today but, as soon as he took that seat, he took control. Just ripped control right out of the hands of Donna Walker-Kuhne, veteran arts marketer, billed as moderator of his conversation with Ford Foundation president Darren Walker. Make no mistake, Walker-Kuhne can handle herself. But, at least for the moment, there was no handling Mr. Arthur Mitchell.

There was so much he wanted to tell us, you see. And he wasted no opportunity to admonish the young students lining the floor in front of the first row of audience seating at this sold-out event.

"Pull your feet back!" he ordered a few.

"Don't upstage me, dear!" he warned a scurrying Catherine Tharin, Fridays@Noon's curator.

"Darren is one of my role models," he told us. "I need someone to educate me in the business part of dance."

Well, thank goodness there's a reason to keep Darren Walker around!

When Walker-Kuhne finally took the reins, posing a question about diversity in the dance field, Mitchell held to what seems to always be his primary focus--discipline.

"Very few people know what [diversity] means," he said.

To Mitchell, it brings thoughts of the multitude of dance techniques and performance skills today's dancer must possess--everything from ballet and tap to a strong, projecting voice.  Speaking of projection, everyone--from audience members with mumbly questions to the moderator of the concluding panel--got a tongue lashing for not speaking up!

Next up, Darren Walker offered that "diversity is about excellence" and that excellence has the potential to lift everthing from dance troupes to major corporations and foundations like Ford.

"It does not correlate with a loss of quality," he argued. Rectifying the chronic inequality in our society and establishing social justice should be the ultimate goal of philanthropy. However, today's philanthropists, many of them flush with Silicon Valley success, have not yet turned attention to the arts.

"But the arts are what make it possible for us to be empathetic," Walker said. "Without empathy, we won't have justice."

Both men lamented the decline of arts education in our nation's schools, and Walker offered the example of how pressuring New York mayor Bill de Blasio led to his establishment of universal pre-K. Why can't we have a similar push for more arts activities in all our schools?

"You've just implemented the most complicated thing you can do--add on a new population of students," Walker said. "But we lack the political will for an arts policy that puts arts education in every classroom. We have to hold our political leaders accountable to get to that goal."

The program stretched Fridays@Noon's usual ninety minutes to a full two hours. It included an enjoyable slate of performances: Paunika Jones (Mitchell's Balm in Gilead), Rasta Thomas (Flight of the Bumble Bee by Vladamir Angelov after Milton Myers), Jones and Jamal Story (Doina by Royston Maldoom), and Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar (the duet from Agon by George Balanchine, made famous by the extraordinary Mitchell and Diana Adams and controversial for that interracial casting). A panel, facilitated by archivist Gillian Lipton, featured remarks by Anna Kisselgoff (former chief dance critic of The New York Times) and remembrances from Lydia Abarca Mitchell (DTH's first prima ballerina), Sheila Rohan (soloist) and Tania León (conductor and composer).

For information on upcoming 92Y Harkness Dance Center and Fridays@Noon events, click here.

1395 Lexington Avenue (between 91st and 92nd Streets), Manhattan
Subways: #6 to 86th or 96th Streets

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