Popped Culture: Mitchum Todd

Article By: Robert Stinson
Photos By: Jennifer Martinez

Popped Culture has been focusing a lot of attention on artists who have lived in Manhattan lately, so it came as a surprise to us at NUG that the citizens of New York collectively raised their voices in support of Gay Marriage. Hopefully, this momentous decision will have a cascading effect throughout the country, because someday people are going to have to wake up to the fact that gays have always been an integral part of society and deserve the same rights as everybody else. In response, we decided to take part in the San Diego Pride Parade this year. We had a contingency of marchers walking along the parade route with the NUG banner and free giveaways.

For this issue of NUG, I decided to focus our attention on an unsung hero of our community. Mitchum Todd is a San Diego local who has been instrumental in developing arts programs throughout the state. He was a resident performer for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and is a personal friend of Bobby Miller, the house photographer for Studio 54. NUG Magazine had the pleasure of meeting with Mr.Todd at Chicano Park to discuss his work in bilingual education.

Can you tell us a little about your background with the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham Dance Companies?
In the early ‘80s, I attended the Alvin Ailey American Dance School on scholarship, which subsequently led to me dancing with the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble. The company I was with mainly toured the U.S. I also trained with the Martha Graham Contemporary School of Dance.

What did it feel like to be on stage with so many talented performers beside you?
It was awesome. At the time, I think I was really naïve because the people I was performing with were just blossoming into their dance careers, so it was a real honor to grow alongside them. I agree with the people that say performing on stage is a spiritual exchange with the dancer and a higher consciousness. For a few hours, you get to slough off the trappings of your life and become a different person.

We recently did an interview with one of your friends, Bobby Miller. You met him in NY, right?
Yes, I met Bobby when I was living in New York City. He was part of a group of visual artists, dancers, musicians, and Broadway actors – all talented individuals who engaged in an exchange of ideas. At that time, Bobby Miller was very prominent and famous throughout the artistic community, being that he was associated with the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and was a house photographer for Studio 54. I felt really inspired being around so many creative types, but at the time, I didn’t understand the cultural significance of what I was a part of.

You were heavily involved in Dance education in California, which was rooted in bilingual education. What was the motivation behind your decision to leave New York and move to California?
Maxine Green of Columbia University’s School of Teaching saw me teaching a workshop for kids when I was living in NY. She invited me to the Lincoln Center Institute for Aesthetic Education, which was a program of instruction for educators of K-12. When I was there, I led and created workshops through experiential investigations around specific works of arts. While I was there, I heard about a program in California called SUAVE (Socidos Unidos Para Arte via Educación), which was a program financed through the California Center for the Arts. SUAVE was an arts integrated approach to teaching and learning in multi-cultural and multi-lingual settings. Using the arts as a medium for instruction offers students a forum for translating ideas and creating representations and metaphors for specific understandings. It was their contention that translation is essential to intellectual and emotional development.

Considering that you have invested so much of your life in the education sector, how do you feel about the state of our county school districts that can’t even afford to keep their arts programs?
I think it’s a detriment to the district’s students that so many arts programs are being cut. I have always believed that the arts should be preserved because they encompass the soul of education. It is one thing to teach a student the fundamentals, such as English and Math, but the arts represent something that is intangible and transcendental. Children who don’t have access to arts programs are denied access to the world of ideas.

How has living with the AIDS virus for over a decade changed your perspective about life?
At the time when I got my diagnosis, there was no counseling or support. The doctors just told me that I had the AIDS virus and that it was fatal. In response, I was shocked and afraid because so many people I knew had already died and I was next in line. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but there was a part of me that made a conscious decision to look at life differently and not take anything for granted because life is too short. I have vivid memories of visiting a friend of mine who was in the hospital. When we got there, he was sitting in a wheelchair in a hallway, because there were so many patients that they were overflowing into the hallways.  My friend was in critical condition, and we knew that at any moment he could die.

The government is cutting many vital social programs because of the fiscal crisis. Are you afraid that this will affect your HIV treatments?
First of all, I am grateful that I have been able to receive the HIV medications and vital services that keep me alive. If the federal and state government suddenly cut programs like Ryan White and ADAP, then thousands of people will be cut off from their life support. It is a really scary predicament to be in because my life is hanging in the balance while the legislators in congress decide whether or not I have the right to live.

I find it kind of serendipitous that while we’re conducting this interview, gays in NY have been liberated. I bet you are ecstatic.
It makes this year’s pride much more meaningful because the people of NY collectively decided to allow gay marriage. The freedom to enter into a marriage contract is something that straight people take for granted. Hell, even people on death row are granted that right, so why shouldn’t we? Denying gays certain freedoms is reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws that made interracial marriages illegal during the early 1900s. Freedom shouldn’t be considered a fringe issue or a political tool; it is our inalienable right as American citizens.

How do you feel about our district attorney turning against the collectives of our city and then turning around and getting full support from the gay community?
It’s really sad that she has decided to take this stance against the medical marijuana community, especially when she has the full support of the LGBT community. There are so many people that need this kind of medication because nothing else works, and the medications that physicians prescribe are sometimes detrimental to the body and can be addictive as well. Denying safe access to these people doesn’t stop crime, it just leaves patients bereft and unable to treat what ails them.  The district attorney’s personal crusade is nothing but a sham and a ploy to churn up support for her political campaign to take over city hall.

bringing you that fire! stay tune for more posts.

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