Mel Tomlinson (1954-2019) was one of the few dancers to star with three major companies: Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and New York City Ballet. He was a powerful, proud performer, his beautiful big black body performing ballet at the highest level.
Tomlinson was already well-known when George Balanchine invited him to join New York City Ballet, making him the company’s only African-American dancer at the time. He made his debut in 1981, opposite the principal dancer Heather Watts in Balanchine’s groundbreaking Argon from 1957, where he danced the role made for Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer with the company. The central pas de deux in that work, created at the start of the Civil Rights era, was choreographed for Mitchell and Diana Adams, a white dancer. Until Tomlinson joined New York City Ballet, Watts had only performed the ballet with white male dancers. Watts:
“Balanchine was very excited. He came to me and said, ‘I’ve hired Mel, dear, from Dance Theater of Harlem, and he’s going to dance “Agon” with you and we’ll work together’. He had a huge presence onstage, was kind of wise and deliberate. Yet he was so lanky and long and rangy. He was intent on showing me off, meaning how he moved me.”
Tomlinson was the only dancer to learn Agon from both the men that created it, Mitchell who first danced it, and Balanchine who choreographed it.
Tomlinson performed with Dance Theater of Harlem from 1974 – 1976; spent two years at the Ailey company, where he memorably performed Alvin Ailey’s Pas de Duke with Judith Jamison; and returned to Dance Theatre of Harlem from 1978 -1981.
After leaving New York City Ballet, he performed with the Boston Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theater. Tomlinson also taught at Boston Conservatory of Music, Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the Greensboro Ballet, and Charlotte Ballet.
Tomlinson was openly gay. He was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s and developed AIDS. In1998, Tomlinson was admitted into the House of Mercy, a ministry of the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in North Carolina that assists people in the final stages of AIDS. It was expected that Tomlinson would die within six months after being admitted. He made a slow recovery and was released from the house in 2000. He then received a Ph.D. from Carolina University of Theology.
For the last two decades, Tomlinson lived in Charlotte, North Carolina and was a dance teacher and director of The Hallelujah Dance Corps at St. Paul Baptist Church. He took his final curtain call on this day, February 5, in 2019 at 65 years old, taken by pancreatic cancer.