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He brought TUPAC to Tacoma’s underserved kids, but famed dancer won’t see final work

A dance student thanks Virginia Johnson, artist director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, after Johnson taught a class at TUPAC (Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center) on July 11, 2017.
A dance student thanks Virginia Johnson, artist director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, after Johnson taught a class at TUPAC (Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center) on July 11, 2017. csailor@thenewstribune.com

Kabby Mitchell III used his considerable talents to reach high points in life: the first black company member of Pacific Northwest Ballet, international performer, choreographer, teacher.

But the Tacoma resident saw a need. The city’s children of color needed a place of their own to pursue the performing arts.

That’s why he co-founded TUPAC — Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center — dedicated to introducing and teaching the performing arts to underserved youth, 6-18.

The nonprofit opened its doors Saturday to students, the public and Mitchell’s friends and family.

There was only one person missing: Mitchell.

Mitchell died May 4 of coronary artery disease. He was 60.

The dancer’s reach was wide. Those he touched filled the Paramount Theatre on Sunday for a memorial.

“It was a packed house,” friend and TUPAC co-founder Klair Ethridge said. “It was amazing.”

“Kabby was a far-reaching, positive soul for change and joy,” said attendee Ability Bradshaw.

KABBY

Mitchell grew up in the Bay Area.

He joined PNB in 1979 and danced with the company until 1984.

He also performed with Dance Theater of Harlem and other companies.

Mitchell taught at Evergreen from 1998 until his death. His subjects included African American studies, dance and theater.

“Kabby was a beloved figure on campus,” said Evergreen President George Bridges. “In so many ways, his life represented heart and passion.”

Evergreen was one of many schools and workshops he taught at during his career.

Mitchell was named the 2016 Cultural Ambassador of Seattle by Mayor Ed Murray. Murray spoke at Sunday’s memorial.

Virginia Johnson, artistic director for Dance Theatre of Harlem, met Mitchell in the 1970s when they danced together.

She saw him again at the Paramount in March when her company performed there.

“I had no idea that would be last time I’d see him,” she said Monday after concluding a ballet class she taught at TUPAC

CREATING TUPAC

Mitchell lived in Tacoma for 13 years, his family said.

“He liked Tacoma,” Ethridge said. “He thought it was a nice, homey kind of town.”

Ethridge started as a ballet dancer, danced with the national tour of “The Wiz” and worked in TV and movie production until retiring in 2016. She and her husband moved to Gig Harbor from Los Angeles in 2006.

She was taking a dance class in 2007. Mitchell was substituting for the regular teacher.

“He came up to me and said, ‘I think I know you,’ ” she recalled.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so. I’m new here.’ 

Eventually the pair realized they knew each other from their dancing days in 1979 San Francisco.

They renewed their friendship and almost immediately began talking and then planning for what would become TUPAC

The focus would be providing arts education for children of color with limited means.

“We wanted to make a school where children could see teachers who look like them, who understood how to talk to them, how to inspire them,” Ethridge said.

In March, Ethridge and Mitchell looked at the space TUPAC now occupies.

On the drive home, Ethridge turned to Mitchell.

“I said, Kabby, what are we going to call this’?”

Ethridge decided they needed a catchy acronym.

“As soon as I said that a Tupac (Shakur) song came on the radio,” she said. The rapper’s name inspired them.

“We worked (the acronym) out,” Ethridge recalled. “I said, ‘Kabby, write it down right now’.”

On Monday, TUPAC began training its first 12 dancers.

“Through grants and donations, every kid gets to dance,” Ethridge said. “We understand how important the arts are in forming complete human beings.”

BALLET AS A METAPHOR

TUPAC artistic director Jade Solomon Curtis said she wants to dispel stereotypes about ballet: “It’s rigid and strict. You can’t do this and you can’t do that.”

The organization is not focused only on dance, Curtis said. There will be classes in musical theater and acting.

Curtis has seen many children come alive when they learn a new form of expression in the arts.

“Some people are just shy,” she said. “But if you put them in front of a mirror and give them some music they open up.”

Johnson, of Dance Theatre of Harlem, spent the day teaching at TUPAC, before returning to New York.

She urged the young ballerinas to move with their arms in a wide embrace.

“Like you’re holding a bouquet of flowers all across the floor,” she said.

A mural of a smiling, leaping Mitchell adorned a corner of the dance studio.

Johnson said classical ballet is an art form with an image problem: exclusivity. She commends groups like TUPAC for creating opportunity and access.

“Classical ballet is a language that can be used by anyone,” Johnson said.

The standards are high, she said.

“They need to learn the forms and rigors of classical ballet and be given the opportunity to excel.”

Like society at large, ballet has its forms and structure.

“It’s a metaphor for fitting in, making it work, excelling and mastering form and structure,” Johnson said. “Then you can be expressive.

“That’s why Dance Theatre of Harlem exists, that’s why TUPAC exists.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

TUPAC

Where: 734 Pacific Avenue (third floor), Tacoma

Information: tacomaupac.org/, 360-453-7790, contact@tacomaupac.org

Schedule: Mondays: Ballet, Tuesdays: Liturgical, Wednesdays: Hip hop, Thursdays: Ballet, Friday: African.

Master classes: Through the summer in musical theater, afro contemporary, acting, jazz and others.

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