A Princely Principal

Outside, the bright sunshine and gentle breezes made for one of those perfect days of May—ideal conditions for the epidemic of spring fever that seemed to have broken out in American Ballet Theatre’s Studio 5. One ballerina crossed the floor in a pair of snowshoes. Another zipped by on roller skates. A pretty redhead pulled a single pointe shoe out of her dance bag, put it on, then went out to dance with nothing but calluses on her other foot. Men in dark aviator glasses caromed around in a make-believe jalopy, while a hack with a flash bulb snapped pictures for the tabloids. At the front of the room, Freddie Franklin stood chuckling at it all.

This was—ahem—a serious rehearsal for the company première of James Kudelka’s zany, Prohibition-era Cinderella, which debuted on June 3 at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. The dancers were obviously enjoying the madcap choreography, but amidst all the laughter and commotion a sober young man stood to the side, quietly taking it all in. Tall, with a full head of wispy blond hair and a long forehead ending in a strong brow, David Hallberg has prominent, attentive eyes that possess a melancholic, preternatural maturity. He is, in a word, regal.

Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, and raised in Phoenix by way of Minneapolis, Hallberg, 24, describes himself, with a shrug, as “the all-American boy.” Sure he is.

A South Dakotan prince? “Seeing is believing,” says Georgina Parkinson, ABT’s English ballet mistress. “How much more refined could he be?” Parkinson finds that American dancers sometimes have to search for their bearings when cast in roles requiring Old World nobility. Not Hallberg. “He just has to stand there,” she says. “God gave him a beautiful instrument. He’s a natural prince, with all those elegant qualities. He was born with it.”

In May, this prince was crowned principal dancer at ABT. “We were out in Orange County, having a company meeting,” Hallberg recalls. “I was sitting in the back of the room, just hanging out, when Kevin [McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director] said, ‘I thought you all might like to congratulate our newest principal dancer, David Hallberg.’ My jaw just dropped. Suddenly everyone was screaming and clapping.”

There had been whispers that Hallberg would make it to the top—ever since the day when a 13-year-old Hallberg first walked into the Arizona School for the Arts. Kee Juan Han, a former soloist with Boston Ballet, had just started the dance program there; Hallberg was among his first batch of students.

“Straight away, the talent was obvious,” Han says. “The physique was meant for classical dance: perfect body, perfect proportions, beautiful feet and a princely look, even at that age.”

Anna-Marie Holmes, Han’s teacher and then–artistic director at Boston Ballet, remembers receiving an excited phone call from Han around that time: “I’ve got this kid who’s beautiful! You have to see him!”

But first Han had to get his star student to switch to ballet from tap and jazz. Hallberg had started dance at around age 9, after watching a Fred Astaire film. “One Halloween, I taped nickels to the bottom of my shoes, to be a tap dancer,” he recalls. “I just loved Fred Astaire. He was so suave, so smooth—seamless.”

Han didn’t pressure his young student, but waited for him to make up his own mind. One day, Hallberg came knocking on Han’s door: “I want to do classical ballet.” Han told him that he was starting late, and he’d have a lot of catching up to do, then set a rigorous regimen of two technique classes a day, with private lessons two or three times a week, for four years. “I have never worked so hard,” Hallberg says. He credits Han with laying the foundations of a technique and work ethic that continue to impress Hallberg’s teachers to this day.

“Sometimes I wish I’d had a little more time to ground my technique,” Hallberg says, “but I learned a lot doing tap and jazz, and maybe I wouldn’t have become obsessed with classical ballet if I had been exposed to it earlier.” He pauses and thinks a moment. “No, actually I probably would have become obsessed.”

Hallberg was the only boy in his ballet classes in Arizona; by senior year of high school, he began to crave new challenges, maybe a bit of competition. “I needed to take class with guys, be in a more professional atmosphere, go to a finishing school,” he says. On Han’s advice, Hallberg applied to the Paris Opera Ballet School: “I sent a video. I really didn’t think I had a chance, being American and all, but I got in.”

When Hallberg talks about his year at POBS, one senses it was a difficult time in a young man’s life. “It was very strict,” he says. “We called the school ‘Le Prison.’” He didn’t speak the language and hardly spoke at all for the first three months (by the end of the year, he was fluent). Complicating his situation, Hallberg was placed in the school’s hyper-competitive first division, the company feeder, where he sensed a certain resentment directed at the American interloper. Hallberg, who is very affable and warm in person, sums up his year in Paris in rather brusque terms: “I wasn’t there to make friends.”

Hallberg’s Parisian classmates needn’t have worried. From the age of 15, he had set his sights on ABT. “In high school, I idolized dancers like Angel Corella, Ethan Stiefel and Vladimir Malakhov. It was always very clear to me that the best men go to ABT.” From Paris, Hallberg entered his second ABT summer intensive; it was there that a corps dancer named Michele Wiles first spotted him. She remembers telling John Meehan, then director of ABT’s Studio Company, “He’s going to be a principal.” 

In 2000, Hallberg was taken into the Studio Company, and he joined the corps de ballet a year later. His first big break came when McKenzie selected him to partner Wiles in the 2002 Erik Bruhn Competition. “Here was a guy who had all the ingredients to be a great male dancer,” says McKenzie. “Sometimes the public, the critics, see that and they want to push it too fast. I thought, OK, here’s a chance to work with him, to teach him some partnering.” McKenzie says he didn’t care if the couple won (they did); the point was to get two young talented dancers into the studio, and “take it one step in front of the other.”

“It’s hard work to build a partnership, in dance as in life,” says Wiles, now an ABT principal herself. “David and I have been on a journey together. There’s something to be said for starting together from the very beginning—it creates that chemistry onstage.” Audiences saw the spark between the two when McKenzie took the unusual decision of letting Hallberg and Wiles make their debuts together in Swan Lake. “There was a sense of vulnerability, a rawness to it,” Hallberg says of their performance, “a sense of curiosity, of making a discovery together for the first time.”  

Hallberg also likes having a variety of partners: “Gillian [Murphy] is such a technician, such a tour de force, it’s a challenge just to keep up with her; and Julie [Kent] is such an artist,” he says. “Dancing with Julie is a gift unto itself.” On his partner wish list: Svetlana Zakharova of the Bolshoi and New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan, although Hallberg thinks the latter pairing might be problematic: “I love to watch Wendy so much, I think I would be distracted—I’d be onstage and I’d just want to watch her.”

These days, this princely dancer is proving his range—most notably as Death. He first laid ‘em low in the 2003 ballet Hereafter, then slew everyone onstage and the critics, too, in ABT’s recent revival of Kurt Jooss’s antiwar The Green Table. Hallberg not only dominated the stage as Death in that ballet, he brought a strange beauty and tenderness to the role. Many consider it his breakout performance.

“There is such intensity to Death,” Hallberg says of the role. “He’s such a colossal character: menacing, powerful, forceful, yet compassionate. There are moments in the ballet when he expresses such compassion for the people he is taking with him. There’s this sense of power, yet he doesn’t abuse it; it is what it is.”

At only 24, “[Hallberg is] an artist already,” says Holmes, who coached him in Raymonda and Le Corsaire. Parkinson values the fact that Hallberg brings his own perspective to the studio: “He’s smart, interested in life, sees theater, museums; he reads. He’s becoming really an all-around human being.” Hallberg says he enjoys anything from the opera or symphony to seeing a contemporary art exhibition or the work of an avant-garde choreographer. He sees his next challenge as “growing and evolving as an artist, with the security of being a principal.” 

“Everyone blooms at a different time,” Hallberg says. “I’ve had to learn in the past three or four years to chill out, have a little patience. When I stopped worrying about everything happening at once, that’s when things started coming together.”

Tango Tanner is a writer who lives in New York.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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