Houston Ballet's Melody Mennite with Ian Casady in Kylián's Forgotten Land. Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy HB.

The Elements of Style: How Embracing a Choreographer's Stylistic Nuances Can Make All the Difference in Your Performance

This story originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Pointe.

If you're a member of a repertory company, tight rehearsal timelines are often a fact of life. You might have only a few weeks to memorize and master a piece before you take the stage. In that time, you'll need to absorb not only the steps but also the choreographer's particular style—the qualities and quirks that set that choreographer apart. Should the movement be buoyant or grounded, fluid or staccato? Is your port de bras meant to be classical or pedestrian? How should you relate to your fellow dancers, and to the audience? Answering these questions will take your performance to the next level. After all, a ballet is so much more than the sum of its steps.

"The ballet isn't going to be the ballet without the choreographer's intention and style," says Sandra Jennings, a longtime répétiteur for The George Balanchine Trust. "Balanchine had an intent in his choreography that affects how we move, from our musicality to the way we use our feet on the floor and how the man offers his hand to the woman in partnering. Those nuances matter."


Absorbing a ballet's style should be an integral part of the rehearsal process. But it's not always easy, especially if you've trained in a style that's completely different. Here, three dancers share how they adapted to stylistic challenges in their repertoire. Follow their lead the next time you're thrust out of your comfort zone.

Kateryna Derechyna: Company dancer, The Washington Ballet

Derechyna in Balanchine's Theme and Variations

Theo Kossenas, Courtesy TWB

When Vaganova-trained Kateryna Derechyna learns a Balanchine ballet, she needs to adapt to his whole approach. "It's very different from how I studied," she says. Derechyna cites Balanchine's speed, musicality and the straight back leg in the fourth position pirouette preparation as important areas to focus on. "Also, in Vaganova we have a lot of movements going out and up, where Balanchine has a lot of steps where you do the accent in and down," she says. "That's something I had to get used to."

Derechyna took her first Balanchine class and danced her first Balanchine ballet, Serenade, as a student at The Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. She's since performed several of the choreographer's other works, most recently Theme and Variations with The Washington Ballet. Each time, taking classes with Balanchine répétiteurs helps her pick up the technique. "In class, I'm focusing on the correct muscle groups and mannerisms from day one," she says.

In rehearsal, she's learned how to approach Balanchine's choreography in a way that works for her. "I try to get the steps in my body right away," she explains. "Then, I can build my performance with each run, adding more of the style—as well as more of my individuality." Because Balanchine's musicality is so specific, she also prepares by listening to the music to learn its details and nuances.

As challenging as the technique and musicality can be, those characteristics are also what Derechyna loves most about performing Balanchine's choreography. "It's very athletic and crisp," she says. "It feels joyful to dance it onstage."

Melody Mennite: Principal, Houston Ballet

Mennite with Connor Walsh in Kylián's Petite Mort

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet's Melody Mennite connects naturally with choreographer Jirí Kylián's movement—but she still works hard to immerse herself in his style whenever the company does a Kylián ballet. That's partly because each of Kylián's works is challenging in a different way. For example, "Petite Mort has a purity of line that feels super-classical, while also having the daring nature of contemporary," Mennite says. "Falling Angels is more athletic and physically challenging."

What does she see as the common thread? "Kylián's movement flows from one thing into the next, so it never feels choppy or awkward," Mennite says. "The way that he uses weight-shifting makes it feel like a really well-put-together puzzle. Also, there are little nuances and quirks in all of his pieces that provide comedic, human moments. Those little movements have to be genuine."

To prepare her legs for the grounded quality that Kylián's movement calls for, Mennite focuses on using the depth of her plié. "Learning to use your body weight to achieve freedom and supple movement quality is something that has to be developed continually," she says. "It's a deep connection with your core and how it affects and controls the rest of your body."

When adapting to any new style, Mennite finds value in trying to be a blank slate. "Start with mimicking," she says. "Replicate what the person who is setting the ballet is saying and doing, no matter how uncomfortable it feels at first. The truer you are to the details from the start, the more natural it will feel as you go along."

Allison DeBona: First Soloist, Ballet West

DeBona practicing "mitten hands" in Ashton's Cinderella

Erik Ostling, Courtesy Ballet West

For Ballet West's Allison DeBona, dancing the role of The Fairy Winter in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella in 2013 was all about scaling back and honing her clean, classical technique. "At Ballet West, we're used to dancing expansively," she says. "For Cinderella, everything had to be more modest and controlled. I had to use every bit of my technique for every step."

DeBona remembers being particularly challenged by Ashton's placement of the arms and hands. "In arabesque, we had to bring our arms down to a lower line without losing the height of the leg," she says. "The other thing I had to think about constantly was having 'mitten hands,' rather than having the middle finger lower and the thumb in. When you've been trained to hold your fingers a certain way since you were 3, you barely have to think about them. With Cinderella, on top of learning difficult choreography, I had to focus on my fingers!"

In order to adapt to a new style of movement, DeBona recommends throwing yourself into it, even if it feels strange. "You have to skip that period where you're dipping your toe in, and dive in instead," she says. "For Cinderella, I practiced on every one of my breaks. I did the steps over and over. I knew when I got onstage, I couldn't go to my defaults, because they weren't acceptable with the style. By the performance, I felt like I'd embraced it. I felt secure."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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