Pointe Stars

Arthur Mitchell on "Agon": "My Skin Color Against Hers, It Became Part of the Choreography"

Arthur Mitchell. Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University.

When American Ballet Theatre soloist Calvin Royal III and New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan burst into the opening diagonal of George Balanchine's Agon on Monday, they had reason to be nervous. Sitting in the downstage corner of Columbia University's Miller Theater—precisely where they'd need to spot their pencil turns—was Arthur Mitchell, the Dance Theater of Harlem co-founder and longtime director who originated the male role at NYCB in 1957. It was a rare and exciting moment of the future meeting the past. (Royal later described the experience as "surreal.") The two dancers, who had been coached by former NYCB principal Heather Watts, gave an electric and intense performance. Afterwards, Mitchell turned to the audience from his blue leather chair and smiled. "I would say it's in good hands."


Royal III and Phelan performing "Agon" during the Vail Dance Festival. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Vail Dance Festival.

Their appearance was part of "An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance," an evening directed by Mitchell to celebrate both his legacy and the Arthur Mitchell archive at Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (The first exhibition featuring Mitchell's donated archives will be on display at Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery January 13–March 11, 2018.) A slew of guest artists came together for the program, which included works by Balanchine, Alvin Ailey and Mitchell himself (including his South African Suite and Rythmetron).




Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member Ashley Mayeaux in Mitchell's "South African Suite." Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University.

Mitchell, 83, sat onstage throughout, giving fascinating commentary on each work. For instance, Balanchine's choice to pair Mitchell with Diana Adams, a white woman, in Agon was intentional. "My skin color against hers, it became part of the choreography," Mitchell said. He recalled how Balanchine, knowing how controversial the interracial pas de deux would be at the time, told him, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done…everything has to be right."



Many of the evening's dancers had studied under Mitchell. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Ashley Mayeaux, Akua Noni Parker and Michael Jackson, Jr. got back into ballet mode for the evening, while ABT corps member Erica Lall tried her hand at Balanchine in The Four Temperaments. The Washington Ballet's Brooklyn Mack showed off his thrilling pyrotechnical skills in variations from Diana and Actaeon and Le Corsaire. Bad Boys of Dance's Rasta Thomas and Jamal Story, a former dancer with Complexions and on Broadway, each gave solo tributes to Mitchell, with Thomas calling him "the greatest teacher and mentor of my life." And former DTH and Ailey star Alicia Graf Mack returned to perform Balm in Gilead, a prayerful solo Mitchell created on her at the age of 18.


Brooklyn Mack in the variation from "Diana and Actaeon." Photo by Eileen Barroso, Courtesy Columbia University

Afterwards, all the dancers joined Mitchell onstage for a Q&A. At one point, two DTH students asked if discrimination was still a problem in the ballet world. "It's not completely a thing of the past," said Brooklyn Mack. "But in confronting it, the most important thing is to let art speak for itself, because it transcends. As artists, we have a huge responsibility to push our art forward and not stay silent."

Cauthorn and Strongin, two to watch at SFB, in "Frankenstein." Photo by Erik Tomasson. Courtesy SFB.

Max Cauthorn was an on-the-rise corps member when he stepped into the title role of Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein last February; when the curtain came down, he was San Francisco Ballet's newest leading man. In his first full-length starring role, he carried the physically and emotionally demanding three-hour ballet with fluent technique and a natural charisma. But he didn't do it alone: In her own lead-role debut with SFB, soloist Lauren Strongin brought tenderness and steely integrity to Frankenstein's true love, Elizabeth.

Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Keep reading... Show less
Pointe Stars
Postelwaite and Pantastico's powerful reunion in "Cendrillon." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Lucien Postlewaite's Prince was anything but charming last February in Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Cendrillon, Jean-Christophe Maillot's contemporary take on the Cinderella story. He strutted and preened, egged on by his friends. But once this prince met Cendrillon at the ball, his egotism gave way to lyrical grace, from the curve of his neck through his elegant extensions. For her part, Noelani Pantastico embodied the role of Cendrillon, taking us on her journey from a lonely, unwanted stepdaughter to a lovestruck young woman. Both dancers glided through the technically demanding choreography, infusing it with heartfelt emotion. This may be a fairy tale, but the romance felt real.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
via Instagram

Usually, it's the jaw-dropping moments on the stage that leave us equal parts inspired and amazed. But National Ballet of Canada principal Svetlana Lunkina has us totally in awe of her behind-the-scenes routine. A 2015 Pointe cover star (and former Bolshoi dancer), Lunkina shares as many clips on Instagram of her classes and rehearsals as she does glam stage shots. Earlier this week, she shared her floor workout—and you have to see it to believe it.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Best Body
Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy New York City Ballet.

This time of year, we're used to seeing dancers embodying the flavors of The Nutcracker's magical Land of Sweets. But the real-life equivalents of those seasonal treats are more than just holiday guilty pleasures, and have benefits that could help you get through a crazy month of performances. Here are a few reasons to indulge in the spices and flavors of the season—now, and all year long.

Peppermint

This powerhouse herb has an abundance of benefits to help you get through a busy performance season. It's been known to aid digestion and help calm anxiety, and one study found that inhaling its vapors may improve athletic performance. Smelling peppermint has also been found to increase focus. You don't just have to get it from candy canes: Try brewing a hot cup of peppermint tea between rehearsals, or to wind down after a long day.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Richmond Ballet dancers show off two adoptable shelter dogs at its annual "Pupcracker." Photo courtesy Richmond Ballet

If you're looking to upstage Clara, there's no better way to do it than with a four-legged furry friend—especially when that furry friend is looking for its forever home. Cue Richmond Ballet: During its December 16 and 21 matinees, the company is teaming up with the Richmond SPCA to present the "Pupcracker," special Nutcracker performances featuring adoptable shelter dogs. Several pups make their stage debut during the party scene as the guests bring their family pets to and from the Silberhaus home. Audience members can then meet—and adopt—the dogs during intermission and after the performance. The SPCA even provides a crate, collar, leash and treats so that patrons can bring their new family members home after the show.


Audience members can meet and adopt featured dogs during intermission. Photo Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Videos
Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park in "The Nutcracker" (1968). Photo by Donald Southern, Courtesy of the Royal Opera House Collections.

Given the thousands of incarnations The Nutcracker has undergone—from tiny-tot productions in small-town studios to grand modern classics—the ballet's Grand Pas de Deux from Act II has remained remarkably intact. With slight variations, most professional dancers have seen its familiar choreography at some point or another. Tchaikovsky's radiant score calls to mind elegant promenades, partnered penchées and slow, supported développés.

Keep reading... Show less
Training
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris.

I have flatter feet and want to make them look better on pointe. Are there any special pointe shoes for my foot type? —Joana

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!