A Future For The Past

The 75th anniversary of San Francisco Ballet this year is a reminder of how much ballet has changed. This season alone, SFB company members are expected to dance a full-length Giselle, neoclassical works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and contemporary fare from Jorma Elo, Val Caniparoli and Mark Morris, among others. And SFB’s repertoire isn’t the only one to ever-diversify. Aside from solely contemporary troupes, the major ballet companies of the U.S.—including keepers of the classics like American Ballet Theatre and traditionally neoclassical companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet—are giving dancers material that departs from the classical idiom. So in an age where ballet dancers must be able to do a lot more than 32 fouettés, why does classicism still count?

Though “the classics” hearken back to the 19th-century ballets of Marius Petipa, the aesthetic qualities of classicism inform works of today. “Even in contemporary works, you can see the sensibilities and the rudimentary technique dancers have learned in classical ballet,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal, who brought such thoroughly modern choreographers as Twyla Tharp and Molissa Fenley to PNB this year.

Still, as companies continue to present work that doesn’t make use of the classical vocabulary, dancers have to wonder if those sweat-filled years spent perfecting technique in ballet school were in preparation for an artistic future that is different than expected. “I’ve spoken to a lot of ballerinas at different companies I’ve worked with and they say, ‘Sometimes we go months without even putting our pointe shoes on,’” says Texas Ballet Theater Artistic Director Ben Stevenson, who stages and choreographs in the classical idiom. “There’s a lot of work being done without pointe shoes, but dancers still like doing pointework.”

Why bother learning how to dance La Bayadère if you’ll spend half your career in slippers or even barefoot? The answer is that the value of classical training is intrinsic, regardless of where you end up. “Let’s say you are cast in the leading role of Swan Lake—it’s quite demanding and you have to carry the whole evening on your shoulders,” says SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson. “That is very different from dancing a third of an evening in a work that has only one act. That’s why principal dancers love to dance [the classics]. They want to be challenged; it’s an important experience in their development as artists and great dancers.”

Students intent on a professional career should continue to learn variations from 19th-century classics such as Sleeping Beauty and add a few from 20th-century classics such as The Four Temperaments, even as they broaden their physical horizons with knowledge of modern and postmodern works. New ballet works naturally reference what has come before, whether they pay homage to or subvert the classical aesthetic, which means dancers need to know what came before.

“Classical ballet” is a style, a genre, a higher aesthetic order—the term means many things to many people. Traditionally, it refers to the ballets created by Petipa from 1877 to 1898 in Russia, but it also encompasses works by August Bournonville, Jules Joseph Perrot and other 19th-century choreographers. At the very least, classical ballet has a distinct vocabulary that, when put together by a master choreographer, can transport both dancer and viewer into a sublime and beautiful world.

This is one reason audiences love the classics. As Tomasson says, “What’s not to like about the second act of Swan Lake?” For many balletomanes, work that makes use of the classical vocabulary continues to resonate, whether it’s Kenneth MacMillan’s full-length Romeo and Juliet or Peter Martins’s newest version.

But these works do have their critics. “There’s a sense of women just being manipulated in lifts,” says dance historian and critic Lynn Garafola. “Considering that women of a certain generation have all gone through second-generation feminism, there is a notion that, well, women can stand on their own two feet, even ballet dancers. There’s also a feeling that we don’t need to see that someone can get their leg up to their ear or do a penché that’s over 180 degrees. We’ve seen that already.”

Even so, century-old and older full-lengths continue to sell tickets. “Audiences revisit a work over and over again and build up very long viewing memories,” says Garafola. “”It’s much easier to take pleasure in what is familiar.” 

Yet as familiar as these works are, anyone who has seen several productions of a classic over the years has probably noticed how much it can change. “Ballet is not some timeless essence,” says Garafola. “The notion of a classical art as an art that is somehow impervious to change is wrong.” Even with the most meticulous attempts at preservation, ballets evolve.

Bournonville’s Napoli looks nothing today like it did in 1842. Likewise, the Serenade that premiered in 1934 differs from the one danced in 2007. Such evolution keeps ballets from becoming museum pieces. Instead, they are alive and culturally relevant.            

Of course, what we consider classics today were, at one time, contemporary with their times and thus reflect that era’s tastes and influences. For example, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia is a comment on Balanchine’s Agon. Agon, in turn, is Balanchine’s commentary on court dances. “What’s so beautiful about this profession is that you can watch the progressions through time,” says Boal. “You can watch George Balanchine, who was influenced by Marius Petipa, taking that classical ballet form and pushing it and reinventing it. Then you can see William Forsythe, who wanted to take the aesthetic that Balanchine was building and push it out in new directions. It’s all progressive, but you can’t abandon the base, because it’s part of appreciating the present.”

Even though ballet dancers must excel in non-classical work, there is still a place for classicism in today’s dance world, as seen in the works of choreographers like Wheeldon, Tomasson, Stevenson and others. “You don’t need to abandon classical technique or the use of the pointe shoe or even the use of the tutu,” says Boal. “There’s still so much that can be done and expressed and said and commented on. It’s a language, and there’s no limit to what we can create with a language.”

For many, the question is not about the survival of classicism, but where it will go next. “It’s really up to these new choreographers to forge ahead in the same way Balanchine was using Petipa as a stepping stone,” says Stevenson. “There’s this wonderful tapestry that happens where all these things knit together. It’s like people writing music. Some of the best composers are doing movies, but without Chopin, these people wouldn’t have the background to go forward.”

Kristin Lewis is an editor based in New York City.

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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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