The Swans of Harlem: Fifty Years of Sisterhood, Five Black Ballerinas, One Incredible Story by Karen Valby - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

Tough Nutcracker

The Swans of Harlem: Fifty Years of Sisterhood, Five Black Ballerinas, One Incredible Story


Manilla Press 352pp £25

Although this book is ostensibly focused on the lives of a group of black women, it is most worth reading for its vivid portrait of an African-American man who tyrannised and mesmerised them. Along with Jacques d’Amboise and Edward Villella, Arthur Mitchell was one of the few male stars of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (NYCB). The first black ballet dancer of outstanding reputation anywhere, he was most widely celebrated for his creation in 1957 of a role in Agon that involved him lying flat on his back while a predatory white ballerina towered over him on pointe like an avenging angel – an incendiary image that resonated disturbingly in the civil rights era. 

Traumatised by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Mitchell left NYCB and in 1969 bravely established Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), a company dedicated to training dancers from black and Caribbean minorities in the classical tradition and to providing opportunities for them to perform works from the mainstream repertory. It would be a pendant to companies such as Alvin Ailey’s, which were simultaneously building on a blues, jazz and antebellum musical heritage. Raising the funds for basic salaries, let alone an ambitious international touring programme (the company visited London many times, to great acclaim), was a constant headache, but Mitchell refused to compromise – he had a point to prove and was determined that his troupe should stand comparison with the greatest in the profession.

Mitchell’s behaviour at this time could not be described as nice. Although he eschewed conventional hierarchies, he was in other respects a fierce traditionalist, almost a parody of the ferocious ballet master – brutally candid in the rehearsal room, insistent on total dedication, minutely controlling on matters of diet,

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