Mel A. Tomlinson, a ballet dancer of powerful, regal demeanor and one of the few performers to star with three major companies — Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and New York City Ballet — died Feb. 5 in Huntersville. He was 65.
His death was confirmed by Claudia Folts, a friend who collaborated with Tomlinson on his 2018 memoir, “Beyond My Dreams.” She said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
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Tomlinson was already well known when George Balanchine invited him to join City Ballet, making him the company’s only African-American dancer at the time. He made his debut on Nov. 27, 1981, opposite the principal dancer Heather Watts in Balanchine’s groundbreaking 1957 ballet “Agon.” The dance critic Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times called Tomlinson’s performance “electrifying.”
In “Agon,” he danced the part made for Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal at City Ballet. The central pas de deux in that work, created during the civil rights era, was choreographed for Mitchell and Diana Adams, who was white. Until Tomlinson joined City Ballet, Watts had performed the ballet with white men.
“Balanchine was very excited,” Watts said in a telephone interview. “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.’ ”
Tomlinson had “a huge presence onstage,” Watts said, and 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.
“The way Mel corrected me,” she continued, “was to say, ‘Wait for me. Let me really do it, Heather.’ It was like putting a little bridle on me.”
He was the only dancer who learned “Agon” from both the man it was created on (Mitchell) and the man who created it (Balanchine). Before Tomlinson joined City Ballet, where he danced until 1987, he had already performed “Agon” at Dance Theater of Harlem, the company formed by Mitchell and Karel Shook.
Tomlinson performed with Dance Theater of Harlem from 1974 through 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 Theater from 1978 through 1981.
Dancing for three major companies was a feat. Virginia Johnson, the current artistic director of Dance Theater and a former principal dancer, said in a telephone interview that “Mel was making a statement — this beautiful black body performing ballet at the highest level.”
After leaving City Ballet, he performed with the Boston Ballet and N.C. Dance Theatre.
Mel Alexander Tomlinson was born on Jan. 3, 1954, in Raleigh, to Tommy and Marjorieline (Henry) Tomlinson. His mother was a homemaker, and his father worked for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and as a delivery man for a jeweler. One of six siblings, he had no formal training in acrobatics or gymnastics but was the sports mascot of his high school.
While most children had bicycles, Tomlinson rode a unicycle. It was a Christmas gift that his father had saved up for when Mel was 9.
A local ballet teacher saw one of his halftime performances and offered him free classes. He continued his training at N.C. School of the Arts (now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where the Mel Tomlinson Scholarship for dancers was recently established). He was spotted by the choreographer Agnes de Mille, who hired him for her Heritage Dance Theater.
Tall, flexible and long-legged, Tomlinson was well known for his performance as the Snake in Mitchell’s “Manifestations” (1975), a ballet about Adam and Eve. Karen Black, a former member of Dance Theater and a friend, said Tomlinson had bought a snake for inspiration.
“He had a little cage that he carried it in,” she said. “Some people were afraid of snakes, and he was like, ‘It’s in a cage! Come on, calm down.’ He was studying the snake and he was mimicking it and watching its every move, which was why his interpretation was so realistic.”
Johnson recalled dancing with Tomlinson in Balanchine’s brisk and challenging “Allegro Brillante” (1956). “He would come out and put his hand on my waist and say, ‘OK, you’re going to make it, keep going, just breathe,’ ” she said. “He’d be talking in my ear while we were getting through those last moments, and it was comforting to know that he was there, and it was impossible, but we were going to make it.”
During the 1990s, Tomlinson had stopped dancing and was mainly teaching ballet. In 1995, after collapsing, he tested positive for H.I.V. In and out of the hospital for three years, he was eventually admitted to the House of Mercy AIDS hospice in Belmont in 1998.
“He almost died three times there,” Folts said. “I can remember the head of the hospice calling me and saying: ‘This is it — his kidneys have stopped. You have to say goodbye now.’ ”
But against the odds, he recovered and left the hospice in 2000. While there, he made use of his time: He became a phlebotomist and earned a doctorate in theology. Up until his hospitalization, just before Christmas last year, he delivered services using American Sign Language at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte.
“It was like watching him dance,” Folts said. “It was all his hands and his face and it was just beautiful. It was like he got to perform every week.”
He still appeared on stage occasionally. In December, in what would be his final appearance, he performed Drosselmeyer in “Nut ReMix,” with Katie Smythe’s New Ballet Ensemble & School in Memphis.
At one point at City Ballet, where he attained the rank of soloist, Tomlinson expressed doubts about why he was there. Folts said he approached Balanchine.
“Mel asked him, ‘Am I here because I’m an artist, or am I here because I’m an only-est?’ — and by only-est, he meant the only black man in the company,” Folts said. “Mr. B. said, ‘You know you’re my dark angel, but that’s not the only reason you’re here,’ and he went on to explain that all of his dancers were flowers in his garden and that they were all different, and that’s what he liked. Mel was another flower in the garden.”