In 1968, Arthur Mitchell, who has been called “the Jackie Robinson of ballet,” heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

 

Mitchell, who at the time was in Brazil where he had helped start the National Ballet Company of Brazil, realized it was time to go home to Harlem where he had grown up.


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He would train others to follow in his footsteps by founding, with the help of his mentor Karel Shook, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first ballet company that would consist mostly of African-Americans.

Mitchell had first pioneered in 1955 when he became the first black dancer to become a permanent member of a major ballet company, joining the New York Ballet Company, founded by choreographer George Ballanchine and arts polymath Lincoln Kirsten. A year later, Mitchell had become the company’s principal dancer.

Now, by starting the Dance Theatre, he would help young black dancers follow his path.

The great adventure that followed is documented in “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts,” a touring exhibit of 165 costumes, set pieces, photographs, design sketches, tour posters and video excerpts from the Dance Theatre’s first four decades. The exhibit is now on display at the Ritz Theatre and Museum.

The exhibit features costumes from four ballets staged by the Dance Theatre. They are:

• “The Firebird,” a ballet by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which the Dance Theatre first performed in 1982. Designed by Geoffrey Holder and choreographed by John Taras, it’s considered the greatest production in the Dance Theatre’s history, said Anjali Austin, who danced with the company from 1977 to 1990 and is now a professor at Florida State University, where she teaches ballet.

• “Creole Giselle,” a Creole-inspired staging of the 1841 ballet “Giselle,” about a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart, which was first performed in 1984. The Dance Theatre version of “Giselle” moved the setting from medieval Europe to a free black plantation in pre-Civil War Louisiana. It was created by Mitchell, designed by Carl Michel and staged by Frederic Franklin.

• “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a ballet version of the Tennessee Williams play, which was performed in 1982. It was staged by Valerie Bettis, who had choreographed the original 1952 production. Virginia Johnson, who played Blanche, is now the Dance Theatre’s artistic director.

• “Dougla,” a ballet for which Geoffrey Holder did the music, choreography and costumes, which was first performed in 1974, the Dance Theatre’s first full season.

Among the other items in the exhibit is a handwritten note by Jerome Robbins, Broadway’s most celebrated choreographer of the 1940s and 1950s, urging Mitchell to do “Fancy Free,” a ballet Robbins had created in 1944. Above the note is a photo of Tyrone Banks in a sailor suit in the Dance Theatre’s 1984 production of “Fancy Free.” Today Banks is artistic director of the Tallahassee Ballet Company.

There’s a 1982 note to Mitchell from Lillian Gish, the great silent film star who recalled having been seated with Mitchell at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala after which he invited her to “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“Oh what a thrilling experience and I cannot express to you how much I loved it and how thrillingly impressed I was,” she wrote.

Primarily a touring company, the Dance Theatre made three international tours on behalf of the State Department, to the Soviet Union in 1988, South Africa in 1992 and China in 2000. There are photos of Mitchell shaking hands with Nelson Mandela and with Diana, Princess of Wales.

Austin, the FSU professor, described Mitchell, who is 83 and no longer active with the Dance Theatre, as “very strong.”

“The expectation was excellence,” she said. “He would tell us, ‘Even your bad has to be good.’ And that expectation wasn’t just onstage but off-stage as well. We were representing something bigger than ourselves.”

Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413