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Transcending Race With Dance

Founder Arthur Mitchell teaches children's souls - and learns a hard lesson about today's financial climate. DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM

A SOCIETY must ``develop the souls'' of its children through the arts - or it is neglecting its greatest resource for the future, says ballet teacher Arthur Mitchell. He leans forward on the edge of his chair, and with a palpable sense of urgency, the visionary founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem continues: ``Do we want our civilization to look back in time and see that it was very technologically advanced and very wealthy - but had no culture? This is what is needed today.''

Arthur Mitchell is a prophet with a practical streak. For 22 years, he has taught dance to disadvantaged inner-city children and guided his mostly black classical ballet company (the only one of its kind) toward international acclaim. His goal is to use dance ``to build better human beings.''

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On a break between rehearsals here at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, the first stop for Dance Theatre's new tour, Mr. Mitchell tells of the event that prompted him, after an illustrious 15-year dancing career with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet, to found a ballet school in the basement of a Harlem church: It was the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. On hearing of it, Mitchell says he felt driven to search out young blacks ``and give them some kind of structure and discipline in their lives.''

Today, he feels an even greater sense of urgency. ``Things are changing much faster,'' he says. ``The young people today, particularly minority kids and inner-city kids, they need some kind of motivation as well as compassion. We live in a very technological society. Very few people are spending time to develop the soul.''

Studying ballet instills discipline, self-respect, and self-awareness, says Mitchell, qualities that translate into other areas of a young person's life. Most people do not realize how effective artistic pursuits such as dance can be in combating homelessness, AIDS, even poor academic performance, he says.

``When you have pride in yourself, you automatically take care of the facilities you live in. That awareness of yourself makes you aware of others. You will not stick a needle in your arm, because your instrument is your body. You'll want to read a book, because you're exciting the pleasure of learning.''

About 550 children a year - mostly black, but also Hispanic, Asian, and white - enroll in the Dance Theatre of Harlem school, with some 100 on a waiting list. Many are on free scholarships.

Arts training is not a frill, but a necessity, says Mitchell, for it gives children ``tools with which they can prepare themselves to face all the obstacles of life.''

Mitchell makes sure his dancers abide by this philosophy. They must be role models with social responsibilities, not just entertainers. While on tour, Mitchell and his dancers lead lecture-demonstrations, teaching 10- to 18-year-olds how ballet dancers train, the physical demands of the art form, and how dance relates to athletics. Back in Harlem, monthly ``open house'' programs bring community members into the studios for informal performances.

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``If we can create this sort of institution in Harlem, you can do this in any urban center in the world,'' says Mitchell, a kind-faced man with a bright smile.

YET Mitchell is not unmindful of the stark obstacles facing minorities in the dance world at large, nor inclined to shrug off the deep financial crisis that such a successful, well-known company as his recently went through.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of dance companies in the United States, both modern and classical, increased from 37 in 1965 to 250 in 1990. No records, however, are kept charting the growth of African-American companies. Mitchell, 56, the first black male principal of the New York City Ballet, says ``there is not a proliferation of major minority dance companies in America.'' This is a byproduct of not getting young people involved in the arts, he says.

``We have such a fast-food society,'' he says. ``Everything's got to be television and instant gratification. No one is looking over the horizon to the future.''

Still, as he travels across the country, Mitchell is seeing a larger pool of minority children studying classical ballet, compared to none 20 years ago. But ``if you're getting an inner-city kid who comes from a large family or a single-parent family, there's no money [for him or her to study]. That's why scholarships have to be provided.

``I still feel that the major dance companies in America do not integrate as much as they should,'' Mitchell continues. ``They'll have to. Our whole society is going to a multicultural society, and there's nothing you can do about it.''

Providing greater involvement for minorities in dance may call for more than starting up strictly all-black or all-Hispanic companies, as in the past, he says. ``There are those who still may feel, `Yes, I want to preserve the roots of my people.''' But Mitchell says he works within a much broader framework. ``In the universal sphere, you've got to find a common language. In the final analysis, the arts transcend race, class, creed, or color.''

What seems difficult to transcend, though, is the risk of financial disaster, as Dance Theatre of Harlem discovered early this year. The company derives nearly half its income from touring. So when tour dates in San Diego and England were abruptly canceled by sponsors, Mitchell and his board decided to shut down operations for six months rather than incur a $1.7 million deficit. Donations, including million-dollar corporate and private grants, ensured the company's return.

``It's sort of frightening,'' says Mitchell, ``when you think that today, in this country, where we need the arts and humanities so badly, that a crisis like that could happen to Dance Theatre,'' a neo-classical company with a distinctly ``American,'' eclectic style.

To prepare for future emergencies, Dance Theatre plans to build up both its cash reserve and endowment and to strengthen its board of directors. DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM TOUR SCHEDULE

Performances and highlights of the company's upcoming season include:

Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 30-Dec. 10, at the National Cultural Center.

Principals Christina Johnson and Ronald Perry will appear in the (British) Royal Ballet's ``Nutcracker'' on Dec. 21 in London.

Bermuda, Jan. 11-15, 1991, City Hall Theater.

``Arts Exposure'' program, New York City College, Aaron Davis Hall, March 11-22. Lecture demonstrations for children, senior citizens, and the handicapped.

Washington, D.C., Kennedy Center, March 26-April 7. Engagement features world premi`eres by Glen Tetley and Billy Wilson.

Detroit Music Hall, April 9-14.

Cincinnati Music Hall, April 16-18.

``Spring Gala'' in New York's Manhattan Center, May 1.

New York City College Community Concert Series, Aaron Davis Hall, June 4-23 (weekends only).

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