Arthur Mitchell, trail-blazing black American ballet dancer, dead at 84

A supporter of the civil rights movement, Mitchell co-founded the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969 along with Karel Shook

Arthur Mitchell, a pioneering black American ballet dancer, died Wednesday at the age of 84, the Dance Theatre of Harlem troupe which he co-founded announced.

Born and raised in New York's Harlem, Mitchell joined the New York City Ballet in 1955, after being spotted in the Truman Capote musical "House of Flowers."

In an interview with the New York Times in January, he recalled the often hostile reactions from audiences when he was given his first starring role in the 1955-56 season.

"There happened to be a bald-headed guy sitting right behind the conductor," he told local news channel Fox5 in a February interview. "He said: 'My god! They've got a nigger in the company!'"

"By the end, I got a standing ovation," he said, smiling. "I danced myself into their hearts."

In 1957, he was offered the principal role in "Agon" by the Russian-origin dancer and choreographer George Balanchine, where he would perform opposite white dancer Diana Adams -- unheard of at the time.

"Everybody was against him," Mitchell said in his New York Times interview about Balanchine. "He knew what he was going against, and he said, 'You know my dear, this has got to be perfect.'"

Blessed with a natural elegance and plenty of charisma to boot, Mitchell eschewed media attention for many years and refused to be typecast as the first black dancer to find a place in the upper echelons of the traditionally white, upper-class art form.

"Let me get in the company and whatever I get will be on my hard work and my talent," he said, explaining the spirit of the time in his Fox5 interview.

Asked by the Times what he considered his crowning achievement, he said: "That I actually bucked society, and an art form that was three, four hundred years old, and brought black people into it."

A supporter of the civil rights movement, he co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 along with Karel Shook. The troupe started out giving lessons in an old car park in 152nd street -- 50 years later it is New York institution.

In June 2015, sixty years after Mitchell first broke the barrier at the New York City Ballet, Misty Copeland became the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer.

"Thank you Mr. Mitchell for helping to change the classical ballet world for our community! Your impact will never fade," she posted on Instagram.

"@dancetheatreofharlem gave black and brown children, not only a home and future, but the ability to dream. I love you with all my heart and will miss you dearly."