Kabby Mitchell III died May 4 at age 60. He danced with PNB from 1979-84, and his career took him around the world, yet he remained rooted in the Pacific Northwest as a choreographer, teacher, mentor and role model.
He was, said Pacific Northwest Ballet founding artistic director Francia Russell, special from the start: “very flexible, with a huge jump, and of course that smile that lit up the whole theater.”
Kabby Mitchell III was in his early 20s when he became the first black company member of PNB, back in 1979; pictures of him from the time show a charismatic young man clearly at ease with being elegantly airborne. He danced with the company until 1984, reaching the rank of soloist. It was the beginning of a rich career that took him around the world — he performed with Nederlands Dans Theater, as well as Dance Theater of Harlem, PNB and other companies — but kept him rooted here in the Pacific Northwest, where he became a beloved choreographer, teacher, mentor and role model.
Mr. Mitchell died Thursday, May 4, of coronary artery disease. He was 60.
In the weeks and months before his death, he was working on a passion project: launching the nonprofit Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, to provide training for young dancers in underserved communities in the Tacoma area. He was also teaching a program called “Dancing Molecules, Dancing Bodies” at The Evergreen State College, where he was a faculty member since 1998, teaching dance and African American studies.
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Last year, Mr. Mitchell was named the 2016 Cultural Ambassador of Seattle, in recognition of his impact on the arts community. “I think that really encapsulated everything Kabby stood for,” said Vivian Phillips, chair of the Seattle Arts Commission and a longtime friend. “He was an ambassador for culture, and an ambassador of love and caring and friendship and family.”
Accepting the award last fall from Mayor Ed Murray, Mr. Mitchell was visibly emotional. “Without this community,” he said, “there would be no Kabby Mitchell III.”
Upon the news of Mr. Mitchell’s death, the mayor issued a statement: “Kabby was a longtime friend of mine and his passing is a personal loss for me and many in the LGBTQ and arts communities. Kabby brought life and love to everything he did; teaching young people to dance, being out and proud as a gay man, and being the first African-American dancer in the Pacific Northwest Ballet in the 1970s. Seattle’s arts community would not be where it is today without Kabby.”
Born in Oklahoma City, Mr. Mitchell grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and initially studied dance at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California, where he earned an AA degree. (He would later earn an MFA in dance from the University of Iowa, in 1998.) Seattle dance teacher Edna Daigre, founder of Ewajo Dance Workshop, spotted him in an Oakland studio in the late ‘70s and urged him to move north. He completed a brief residency at Ewajo, after which, said Daigre, “he loved Seattle, he wanted to stay, but ballet was his whole passion.” The PNB audition quickly followed.
Mr. Mitchell moved into choreography later in his career, with many local credits including “Black Nativity” (the Langston Hughes musical play that was a Seattle holiday tradition), Seattle Opera, Seattle Rep, ACT, and the Bathhouse, among many others. Ever mindful of community, he didn’t restrict himself to the professional realm; making time a few years ago to choreograph the teen summer musical at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. “For someone with his accomplishments,” said Randy Engstrom, director of the Seattle Office for Arts & Culture, “that’s a remarkable testament to his character.”
Mr. Mitchell taught at PNB School for a number of years. “He was a Pied Piper,” said Russell. “The students just worshipped him.” He mentored young dancers there, particularly black dancers finding their way in the predominantly white world of ballet.
Kiyon Gaines, former PNB soloist and now a choreographer and faculty member at the school, remembered how Mr. Mitchell sought him out, early in Gaines’ PNB career, to introduce himself and offer his support. Mr. Mitchell, he said, would come backstage after performances with praise and encouragement. “He kept saying, you just have to keep working and keep positive,” Gaines remembered. “I remember thinking, ‘I can do this — there’s someone who believes in this dream as much as I do.’”
At Evergreen, Mr. Mitchell likewise inspired his students. “They loved him,” said Evergreen professor Gilda Sheppard, a colleague and longtime friend. “Kabby allowed students to be themselves with him. He allowed them to challenge themselves with their mind and body. . . He would take them to ballets and they would see so many different sides of Kabby.”
All who knew Mr. Mitchell talk about the joy and positivity that he brought to every interaction; he was the kind of friend who remembered birthdays, always took pictures, made every event a special occasion. Phillips remembered a dinner at Palomino with Mr. Mitchell and Arthur Mitchell (no relation), the former New York City Ballet star who founded Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969. “The stories they told!” said Phillips, laughing. “It was like watching the best comedy film ever.”
“He really believed in the possibilities of people,” said Sheppard. Though Mr. Mitchell was known for his ever-present smile and robust laugh, he was also “quite a creative and critical thinker,” she said. “He could make you think about yourself, and about the beauty of life and its contradictions.”
Mr. Mitchell is survived by his sister Patricia Corbert and her family, and by the many friends and students whose lives he touched. His life will be celebrated in a memorial service at 2 p.m. July 9 at Seattle’s Paramount Theater; it will be a weekend of celebrating his legacy, with the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center planned to open July 8. Donations in Mr. Mitchell’s memory, the family suggests, can help continue his planned work at TUPAC; tacomaupac.org.
Among an outpouring of affection for Mr. Mitchell on Facebook this week, one friend wrote, “We will think of you dancing in the stars.”