NEW YORK — 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, N.C. He was 65.
Claudia Folts, a friend who collaborated with Mr. Tomlinson on his 2018 memoir, “Beyond My Dreams,” said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Mr. 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 principal dancer Heather Watts in Balanchine’s groundbreaking 1957 ballet “Agon.” Anna Kisselgoff, the chief dance critic of The New York Times, called Mr. 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 Mr. 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.’”
Mr. Tomlinson had “a huge presence onstage,” Watts said, and was “kind of wise and deliberate.”
“Yet he was so lanky and long and rangy,” she added. “He was intent on showing me off, meaning how he moved 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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, “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 North Carolina Dance Theater.
Mel Alexander Tomlinson was born Jan. 3, 1954, in Raleigh, N.C., to Tommy and Marjorieline (Henry) Tomlinson. His mother was a homemaker; 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. A local ballet teacher saw one of his halftime performances and offered him free classes.
He continued his training at the North Carolina 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 choreographer Agnes de Mille, who hired him for her Heritage Dance Theater.
Mr. Tomlinson had stopped dancing during the 1990s and was mainly teaching ballet. In 1995, after collapsing, he tested positive for HIV. In and out of the hospital for three years, he was eventually admitted to the House of Mercy AIDS hospice in Belmont, N.C., in 1998.
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.