A Force of Nature

When I first saw Alexandra Ansanelli, she was darting across the stage with blazing vitality as the Firebird with New York City Ballet. Her fierce, staccato movements possessed all the daring and energy that characterizes the Balanchine style. At that moment, the stage of the New York State Theater seemed a world away from the traditions of 19th-century classicism. But five years later finds Ansanelli in London’s Covent Garden, about to lead The Royal Ballet in a performance of its ultra-traditional Swan Lake.

It’s rare for a dancer who has been immersed in one style and repertoire to pursue a very different tradition at the height of her career. Yet, after having spent all of her ballet life at NYCB, Ansanelli left abruptly in the summer of 2005, surprising her fans and colleagues. And—as she told me when she sat down for an interview, white practice tutu slung over her arm—her motives might seem surprising for someone then a principal at the country’s most famous neoclassical company. “From the very beginning I’d only studied Balanchine,” she says. “Although I’d been dancing the work of a genius, I knew there was so much more. Something inside of me was missing.”

Ansanelli had no job waiting in the wings, a situation that left her guesting and doing tours for several months. She soon received offers from several U.S. companies, but turned them down, feeling they wouldn’t provide the exposure to ballet’s classical heritage that she craved. Then Royal Ballet Director Monica Mason got in touch. Mason hadn’t seen her perform but came to New York, where Ansanelli rented a tiny studio to dance variations from Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty. “I was impressed by her musicality and sense of performance,” says Mason. “I felt that if she had the courage to adjust to an entirely different dance style, then I would welcome her.”

Mason explained, however, that she couldn’t offer Ansanelli a principal contract, noting that the company had many established artists whom she couldn’t simply pass over. Her loyalty impressed Ansanelli. “I thought, ‘Wow, she really looks after her people,’ ” she says. “That’s a very commendable trait in a director.” Ansanelli accepted a first soloist contract, hoping that over time she would earn a promotion to principal.

She threw herself into mastering the very different English style. Most Royal company members have been schooled in its signature emphasis on pliant upper bodies, supple port de bras and soft terre-à-terre footwork. For Ansanelli, it was a big stretch from her training. A soccer prodigy as a youngster, she had begun ballet at age 11 when her mother decided it was important to foster her tomboy daughter’s more feminine side. Ansanelli took classes at a local studio and went to a summer arts camp. There she was spotted by Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Edward Villella, whose daughter was also a camper. He recommended that she apply to the School of American Ballet. To her parents’ surprise, she got in the first time she auditioned.

When Ansanelli was still 15, ballet master in chief Peter Martins plucked her from the school to be an apprentice with NYCB. Within two years, she’d reached soloist rank. In 2003, she was made a principal. Ansanelli was often paired with another young dancer, Benjamin Millepied, now a noted choreographer and an NYCB principal. The two were frequently cast in Balanchine works. “Alexandra is a perfectionist,” Millepied says, looking back on their partnership. “She was driven and she knew what she wanted. It was difficult sometimes in the studio, but onstage it was marvellous. She was so wild and expressive and strong as a performer.”

Throughout her NYCB career, Ansanelli’s full-out quality pleased audiences accustomed to high-energy dancers with brio and stamina. British audiences, she has found, are more conservative. “British culture is more detail-oriented,” she says, reflecting on the nuances that some roles require. “I’m learning here that I can use a bit less emphasis in my movement and it’s still effective.”

Still, her first year tested her. Now 28, she had lived with her parents until moving to London. “I was scared,” she admits. “I’d defected from my life and a nurturing environment.” Her new apartment felt lonely. “I always found coming home to my parents very comforting at the end of a long day,” she says. “I’m not at a phase yet where I’ve met someone whom I’m going to be sharing my time with personally, so it’s hard because sometimes you need that comfort and it’s not there.”    

She found herself cast at times in demi-soloist roles, a far cry from her NYCB days. Audiences and some critics were wary initially, but Ansanelli gradually made inroads, winning acclaim when she performed the role of Aurora in The Royal’s lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty. Even though she was dancing in the shadow of Margot Fonteyn, critics like Clement Crisp praised her performance. “She brought a radiant assurance to the role,” he wrote. And during the company’s American tour in 2007, Mason promoted her to principal.

Ansanelli is getting the best of both worlds now that The Royal’s roster of work by Balanchine and Robbins is increasing. “They were brilliant choreographers and their amazing ballets are what made me,” she says. “I never want to say good-bye to that.” She has certainly pleased Monica Mason. “Alexandra has proved to be extremely adept in absorbing the requirements of everything I’ve cast her in. She made an outstanding debut in the title role of Ondine, originally created by Ashton for Fonteyn.”

But Swan Lake was still the acid test, and in The Royal Opera House a few days after our interview, it was the final moments of the white act that clinched it. As Odette, Ansanelli slowly pulled away from Siegfried’s outstretched arms, magnetized by the spell of Von Rothbart into a curve of agonizing bourées, her arched back and beautiful rippling arms telling us of a princess transforming, once again, into the bewitched swan. She garnered praise in her debut from all quarters, not least from Crisp (a passionate advocate of classical correctness) who wrote she gave “a performance of beautiful line, emotional finesse and of fascinating promise for the future.” 

For me, her sensitive artistry and crystalline clarity of mime and technique tells not just the tale of Swan Lake, but also of this ballerina’s journey from the fierce attack of one mythical fiery bird to the dignity, nobility and grace of a princess turned swan, as pure as the white tutu she wears. The contrast speaks for itself. Her passion for learning has set Ansanelli free from the limits of any one technique.

Only her American fans have cause for regret. “It was exciting when she was out there,” says Millipied. “There were performances with her I’ll never forget. I used to get scared going onstage with her, knowing that she would hold nothing back. But it was all coming from a sincere place, a relationship with the music. That sense of danger was great—I miss it.”

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer in London. He writes regularly for
Dance Europe, Ballet.co magazine, Londondance, SkyArts and other publications.

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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.

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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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