Kabby Mitchell’s dancing life started in Oakland, California, and it took him all over the world. He spent a big part of that life in the Pacific Northwest, and played an important role in the growth of the dance community here for many years.
Like many men who came to dance in the 1960s and 70s, especially African American men, his dance education was eclectic – ballet and modern dance forms shared time with jazz and what today we call world dance. But it was ballet that really drew him in, and he gave back to the art form with a joyous enthusiasm, on stage, in the studio, and in the world at large.
Mitchell came to Seattle at the invitation of Edna Daigre after working with Oakland Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Netherlands Dance Theater, and helped her to found the Ewajo studio. He joined Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1979, not long after Kent Stowell and Francia Russell became directors there, and he had featured roles in several of the works that Stowell first made for the company. The ensemble was young and Stowell’s works were tailored to their skills, taking advantage of their personalities while giving them opportunities to hone their technique. And as Russell said to Moira Macdonald for her lovely tribute in the Seattle Times, Mitchell had personality to spare. His zest as a performer became an integral part of the company’s early style, whether it was in something lighthearted like Stowell’s “Over the Waves,” or a more austere work like George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.” His high, proud chest created an indelible line in that work, whether it was during a theatrical performance or a high school lecture demonstration.
After several years as a soloist with PNB, he went on to perform in a wild variety of projects, including Las Vegas reviews, music videos, musical theater, liturgical dance and concert work. He ran his own ensemble for a time, Sphinx/a dance theater, collaborated with the Choreopoets, choreographed for the opera, the Rep, the Bathhouse, ACT, and Intiman, where he created the movement for their annual holiday show, Black Nativity. Even though he would leave town for performing opportunities, he always came back — the Northwest had become his home.
He taught at PNB and elsewhere, from kids in youth programs and amateur adults to professionals. Eventually he joined the faculty at Evergreen College, where his eclectic background made it easier for him to combine the traditional discipline of dance with the college’s exploratory teaching models. And he gave considerable time to public service, sitting on panels for the Seattle, King County, and Washington state arts commissions.
He was too often the only black face in those projects, and he accepted the pressure and difficulty of being that kind of example; he felt strongly that he needed to be seen in these roles, in part so that the next generation of artists would find something of themselves reflected in world they hoped to join. Endeavors like Theresa Ruth Howard’s Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, which is documenting the careers of African American dancers in ballet companies and schools from the beginning of the last century, is helping to fill that deficit, but the fact that many of us learned of Mitchell’s death the morning after PNB hosted a panel discussion about diversity in ballet with Howard and other colleagues just makes this challenge more vivid. Despite the improvements we’ve managed to make over the last several years, we still have far to go, which was one of the reasons behind Mitchell’s most recent project, the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, a youth program which is scheduled to open this summer.
The dance world is a tightly knit culture – the exposed nature of the work and the personal connections among teachers and students, choreographers and performers, bind us to each other, so that death is especially sharp. Kabby Mitchell’s commitment to the art form was matched by his commitment to his community: fellow dancers, teachers, students, friends and family. We were lucky to have him for as long as we did, and we’ll miss him as we move forward without him. There will be a memorial service on July 9 at the Paramount Theater at 2 pm, while the TUPAC will open July 8.