Gianna Reisen in rehearsal with NYCB corps de ballet dancer Ghaleb Kayali. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

18-Year-Old Gianna Reisen on Choreographing for NYCB's Fall Fashion Gala

This Thursday marks New York City Ballet's annual Fall Gala. Spearheaded by actress and NYCB board member Sarah Jessica Parker, this glamorous event unites the worlds of ballet and fashion by partnering choreographers with top designers to collaborate on new works. This year, alongside premieres by NYCB company members/choreographers Lauren Lovette, Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher, 18-year old School of American Ballet alumna Gianna Reisen will present her first work for the stage at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater.

NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins noticed Reisen's work at SAB's Student Choreography Workshop and invited her to create a piece for The New York Choreographic Institute in 2016 before offering her the Fall Gala commission. This opportunity came as part of a whirlwind year for Reisen; after finishing her studies at SAB she was offered an apprenticeship at Dresden Semperoper Ballett late last spring. Reisen spent only three weeks getting settled in Germany before returning to NYC in late August to start rehearsals for the gala.

We caught up with Reisen to hear what it's been like to work alongside such high-caliber artists and to get the inside scoop on her premiere.


Tell us about your piece. What music are using?

It's called Three American Pieces by Lukas Foss. It's chamber music for violin and piano. I found the piece a while ago in the depths of Spotify and was immediately drawn to it. And when I found out I would be choreographing for NYCB I thought of Foss' piece because it really reminded me of the company; it basically screamed NYCB.


NYCB corps de ballet dancer Emma Von Enck and NYCB apprentice Roman Mejia rehearsing for choreographer Gianna Reisen. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

How many dancers are you working with, and how did you choose your cast?

I'm working with six men and six women. My entire cast is made up of younger corps members. I'm extremely happy with the group; they've been working very hard. It's great because a lot of them were my former classmates and also some people that I've watched growing up at SAB, so I know them fairly well as dancers. It's making the process a lot more fun.

How long is the piece?

It's a little over twelve minutes. I finished the piece quite early which is super helpful for me so I have a lot of time to focus on details and the bigger picture and emotion behind the movement. Also for the dancers and myself to feel more comfortable with what they're doing.

Which designer are you working with, and what has that collaboration been like?

I'm working with Virgil Abloh. He's been an amazing person to work with and the collaboration has been so fun. I really don't know anything about fashion design at all and Virgil had never worked in ballet before, but we've been very open to each other's ideas and the finished products are pretty amazing.



Can you describe to us what the costumes look like?

The color palette is fairly neutral. All of the women have short skirts with tulle but they each have different components to them and different length sleeves. Two of the girls are in black, two are in ivory and two are in blush. All the men are in black. It's a simple color palette but I think it feels sophisticated and interesting.

What has it been like to work with such top-tier dancers and alongside such well-established choreographers?

In the beginning it was definitely extremely intimidating for me because I was coming into the company as this new person that not a lot of the company members knew. And the whole process is very new to me, creating a work for stage and for a company of such high caliber. But now that I'm further along in the process I feel like everyone is extremely supportive and nice. There's obviously still a good amount of pressure, but I feel definitely less intimidated now than in the beginning. Once I started to feature my dancers as individuals I felt a kind of shift. A lot of people (including myself) have really warmed up.


Gianna Reisen in rehearsal with NYCB corps de ballet dancerGhaleb Kayali. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

How do you see choreographing fitting into your life going forward?

I hope there will be choreographic opportunities in Dresden. I really hope that I have the chance to expand choreographically. I am still dancing, so I want to see where I go as a dancer and where life takes me. But I'd really love to pursue both dancing and choreography at the same time. I'll definitely take any and all opportunities that come my way in choreography.

What has the biggest highlight of this experience been?

To just be working with such incredible dancers. They're all insanely talented and so eager to work and so open to new ideas.


Gianna Reisen rehearsing NYCB corps de ballet dancer Emma Von Enck and NYCB apprentice Roman Mejia. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.


What has the biggest challenge of this experience been?

The transition between being a dancer and being the boss of other people. When you're a dancer you're really told what to do. You're always following instructions and there are people overseeing your everyday life. The hardest part of me was taking a second to realize that I was now the one who needed to tell other people what to do.

What part of Thursday night are you most looking forward to?

I've never choreographed for the stage before. So to have my first ballet premiere at the Koch theater and see my work onstage for the first time... it's going to maybe be the best moment ever.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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