© 2012 Christopher Charles McDaniel Arthur Mitchell & Diana Adams in Balanchine's Agon, 1957

In Service to the Art Form: A Letter of Adoration

Lately I’ve found myself engrossed with and indulgent in a bit of ballet history. I have been doing this through what I’ve entitled my “Bunhead Reading Railroad.” This said railroad is taking me on a journey through days of George Balanchine, by reading the accounts of his most prolific dancers in their autobiographies. Mr. Balanchine has made a mark on the ballet world that can never be erased . More exclusively he’s made a mark on those who studied under him, and they are the reason his work is carried on with the grace and style he envisioned in their inceptions. I have begun my journey with “Once a Dancer” by the immaculate Allegra Kent. Her road to ballet stardom was such a rough one. Between the ages of 15 and 20 she endured some of the most horrific and glorious trials a dancer can face. Reading her feelings and thoughts of reverence for Mister Balanchine keeps my mind going back to the man I’ve admired and honored since my very first encounter with ballet, Arthur Mitchell.

When I began my studies in ballet at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, as a kid, I would arrive to the studios multiple hours before my classes began, to walk around the building and look at photos, awards, and posters of the company and Mr. Mitchell. I was completely obsessed with his accomplishments and instantly began to idolize him. I’d sneak up to the 2nd floor where the company rehearsed and watch from the door as he conducted rehearsals. I’d sometimes just go stare at the almost ceiling high portrait of him that welcomes you to the 2nd floor. There was this poise and confidence that beamed from him. His presence was literally felt when he entered a room. If someone was slouching, they’d stand erect immediately. His passion and heartfelt desire to help his dancers was very evident in his rehearsal approach. He’d take the time to break steps down and had an eye that no one else had. I remember on one occasion him telling a dancer, “If you think of lifting your baby toe, the turn will work.” With his correction in mind, she went for the turn again and sailed around in arabesque flawlessly. Afterwards he’d simply say, “You follow my thinking?” I was baffled, so many times, at how he could watch you do something, give you the simplest correction, and change your way of dancing. His company classes was always simple. He gave a class that was geared toward cleanliness of line, strength in execution, and focused on musicality. He didn’t care how high someones leg was if their “po-po” (butt) was out and they were turned in. He always demanded that a dancer presented their heel forward. He’d use the imagery of balancing a cup of tea on the rotated heel, and say “May I serve you?” A leg that was beautifully straightened and rotated at 90 degrees was preferred over a super high leg. Mr. Mitchell would refer back to the things Balanchine said to him and you’d feel personally honored that he shared a pearl of wisdom that way. He didn’t allow a dancer who was 5 feet tall to dance like they were 5 feet tall. He’d demand they out dance and out travel the tallest man in the room. Likewise he wouldn’t accept a 6 foot tall dancer moving under themselves. He didn’t believe in petite and pretty dancing for someone with the potential to be powerful. While he wanted big movement, his call for cleanliness was always in order. He also didn’t want for dancers to “spend themselves” too soon. What he meant by that was, there should be a progression in ones performance. He didn’t want us to come out of the wing going full-throttle, because there was no where to go. He’d day ‘if start at 100 percent where do you go from there?’ Mister Mitchell didn’t allow dancers to wear “rags” or incredibly baggy clothes in his class. He wanted to see the body move. How could he correct what he couldn’t see? He kept a family enviornment at DTH. And did not allow petty arguments and cattiness to ruin the safe haven he worked so hard to build. He on many occasions would remind us that, dance as an art form is much bigger than any ego, dancer, choreographer, company, or director. He told all of his dancers that if we reminded ourselves, ‘We are in service to the art form,” we’d keep our egos in check. You were not allowed to bring outside drama into the studio. Many times he’d let us know that he doesnt care what happened before we got to work, once we got in that studio everything else should be left at the door. He didn’t say this to be insensitive or mean, but to make stronger men and women out of us. There was no marking or slacking off when he ran rehearsal. You did NOT waste his time! From a very young age he taught his philosophy on performing. He taught us that out job as dancers is to make the audience forget about their problems for the amount of time that we are on stage. We were empowered as artists to change people’s lives and he made sure we took that seriously. He never sugar-coated things. He didn’t beat around the bush. He was blunt and honest and you had no choice but to accept it. You didnt have to walk around speculating as to whether or not he liked you. He made it clear. He loved all of his dancers. From the greatest to the smallest child in the building, if you came to the studio with an open mind and an open heart he’d give you attention you needed. “You’ll get out of it what you put in it.”

As a kid working with him, he never allowed me to succumb to my insecurities. He preached a message of hope and inspiration each day, reminding me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and to never allow anyone to tell me I couldn’t. I credit him for the zeal and ambitious attack i bring to my work. Any time I’m preparing to execute a difficult sequence of steps, I hear his voice in my head saying, “Christopher, you mustn’t broadcast to the world that you’re afraid and might fall!” I vividly remember him growing aggravated with the lack of stage presence we demonstrated in the studio. He required us to perform IN rehearsals. ‘If you don’t perform in front of people you know, you won’t do it in front of a strange audience,’ he’d tell us. And then remind us it was the Dance THEATRE of Harlem. There was to be no stale face dancing.

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