Colour photograph of Arthur Mitchell in Agon, photographer Anthony Crickmay, mid 20th century
Arthur Mitchell challenged the idea that black bodies were not suited to classical ballet. He danced with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet in the 1950s and 1960s, the first black dancer to become a leading dancer with a ballet company.
In 1957, Mitchell was not yet a soloist. He also had a foot injury but Balanchine was eager to begin work on his new ballet Agon, saying 'OK, I'll do everything for you on the right foot'. The music too was a problem. The score was a new one by Igor Stravinsky. 'There are parts I don't understand,' the company pianist said. 'That's all right,' replied the composer, 'I don't understand them either'.
Until Agon, Mitchell had been cast without regard for his colour. Now Balanchine used the difference between him and his partner, the fair Diana Adams, so that the placing of a hand or the arms provided a colour structure that became part of the choreography. It was to be one of the greatest pas de deux ever created.
Dance Theater of Harlem Dance company, black and white photograph by Anthony Crickmay, mid 20th century
Dance Theater of Harlem was the first black classical ballet company. Forces of Rhythm was choreographed by Louis Johnson to show various forms of black dance: Afro-ethnic, jazz dance and ballet. Its message was that Dance Theater of Harlem was not turning its back on its heritage but believed it had equal right to make classical ballet its own. This photograph was taken during the company's hugely successful first London season in 1974. The visit started quietly. Then word spread that something special was happening at Sadler's Wells Theatre and suddenly huge queues formed at the box office.
To cope, the theatre staff gave up their free time to help. T-shirts and lapel badges bearing the company logo of two strutting dancers were to be seen everywhere. When founder and director Arthur Mitchell announced that the next company into the theatre had generously changed its rehearsal schedule so that the season could be extended by a week he was greeted with shouts of 'We want six months'.
Dance Theater of Harlem, black and white photograph, mid 20th century
Dance Theater of Harlem was the first black classical ballet company. Its founder, Arthur Mitchell, wanted to challenge ballet companies on their own ground and show that black dancers could dance the same ballets equally well. Concerto Barocco was one of George Balanchine's major ballets and a great test for the company, some of whom had only been dancing for five years. It was the ballet chosen to open the company's first season in London in 1974. Audiences were amazed that a company only five years old could master the cool serenity of Balanchine's style. As Mitchell said, London was important for his company because it was one of the major centres of classical dance.
Arthur Mitchell teaching, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, black and white photograph, mid 20th century
Arthur Mitchell challenged the prejudice that black bodies were not suited to classical ballet. He danced with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet in the 1950s and 1960s, the first black dancer to become a leading dancer with a ballet company. In 1969 Mitchell started his own school in Harlem 'to get the kids off the streets'. He used 'dance' rather than 'ballet' which the boys thought 'sissy'. They soon found out their mistake. Ballet training involves more physical discipline than any sport. But Mitchell knew when to relax the rules. Boys did not have to wear the dreaded tights. They danced to drumbeats rather than classical music. He also believed that the discipline would help children who had known little control in their lives. In 1971 he founded Dance Theater of Harlem to showcase the dancers he had trained. Mitchell gave structure and purpose to the lives of thousands of children who went on to dance, work in the theatre or, applying the discipline he had taught them, to become doctors or lawyers.
Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, American Dance Theatre, black and white photograph by Anthony Crickmay, about 1960
Alvin Ailey was the protégé of American pioneer modern dancer Lester Horton, and also danced with Martha Graham. He formed his own black dance company, American Dance Theatre, in 1958 to present his own works, a blend of tribal African-American dance, jazz, and modern dance. He wanted to explore the black experience: what he called, in Martha Graham's phrase, 'blood memories', but also to keep key works in the modern American dance repertory alive. Revelations is Ailey's tribute to black sacred music and the evangelical force of religion. His 'blood memories' were the church of his youth when he was growing up in the Depression in Texas. Like the churches of the Deep South, Revelations mixes ritual, hell fire and rousing praise. The company always performed it with a passion and commitment that had audiences on their feet, shouting. In the 'Take me to the Water' sequence, shown here, figures move against a deep blue ground, the white dresses and the parasols weaving themselves inextricably into the choreography.
Hidden Rites, Alvin Ailey Dance Company, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, mid 20th century
The photograph shows Sara Yarborough and John Parks in Alvin Ailey's Hidden Rites. They were members of his City Center Dance Theatre and in this piece are playing the roles of two deity spirits who dominate the action. In Hidden Rites, Alvin Ailey delved so deep into the African roots of black ritual that it became a study of the roots of all ritual. The patterned tights have African sources but also suggest the Minoan civilisation of Crete, of around 2000 B.C. The action centred on universal themes of creation, love and death. This was in keeping with Ailey's aims. Although his company had its roots in African- American culture, he always wanted it to include the best works from whatever source, and not be limited in themes.
Roots of the Blues, Alvin Ailey Dance Company, photograph by Anthony Crickmay, mid 20th century
The photograph shows Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theatre in Roots of the Blues. This ballet was Ailey's tribute to the Blues and its place in American black culture, and another example of his drawing on 'blood memories' to create dances. It was a series of short sketches tracing the Blues from the brothels of New Orleans to the speakeasies (shops or bars where alcohol was sold illegally during Prohibition in America) and nightclubs of the 1920s. The setting was very spare - a few chairs, stools, a ladder, a hatstand, but combined with Ves Harper's equally simple yet striking costumes, and stunning lighting and back projections, it created unforgettable stage pictures. Ailey's choreography showed off the individual dancers to perfection. On the company's first visit to London in 1964, it was the work that made audiences realise just how good Ailey's dancers were.