Alabama Ballet dancers Luiza Boaventura and Andres Castillo in The Sleeping Beauty

Melissa Dooley, Courtesy Alabama Ballet

Alabama Ballet’s Repertoire Offers Dancers Chances to Perform Works by Some of Ballet’s Biggest Names

Flocks of swans, waltzing flowers, bourréeing phantoms and leaping princes are all regular sights in rehearsals at Alabama Ballet's downtown Birmingham studios. Throughout its season, the company produces classical story ballets as well as works by major names like Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille and Jiří Kylián. "We're classically based," says artistic director Tracey Alvey, who trained at The Royal Ballet School and was a principal with London City Ballet.


But during Alabama Ballet's annual Ovation showcase, the programming skews more toward the contemporary, as Alvey aims to "give the dancers something to extend their abilities. They need to be versatile, able to jump into any style and excel." This May, the double-bill features pieces by two female choreographers: the lyrical Donnette Cannonie and German dancemaker Anna Vita.

Two dancers in rehearsal clothes jump in jet\u00e9s in class with other dancers standing behind them

Alabama Ballet in company class

Melissa Dooley, Courtesy Alabama Ballet

Springing from three local organizations, Alabama Ballet traces its roots to the early 1980s, and was originally directed by noted Bulgarian dancer Sonia Arova and her husband, Thor Sutowski. Former American Ballet Theatre principal Wes Chapman served as artistic director next, from 1996 until Alvey's arrival in 2007. Under Chapman's leadership, the company began to present George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. In 1998, Alabama Ballet added a school, which became RAD certified under Alvey.

Alabama Ballet performs four main-stage productions per season plus an in-studio show. Story ballets are a staple, so audiences can expect full-lengths—such as Romeo & Juliet, La Sylphide and The Sleeping Beauty—alongside mixed-repertoire programs ranging from classical to contemporary. In recent years, these have included Act II of La Bayadère, Études by Harald Lander, Tharp's In the Upper Room, de Mille's Rodeo and Kylián's Sechs Tänze. Associate artistic director and resident choreographer Roger VanFleteren also produces original work, like Bonnie and Clyde and Alice in Wonderland.

"I love the variety of the repertoire," says Ariana Czernobil, who's now in her ninth season. "It's so different from year to year." A graduate of University of North Carolina School of the Arts' high school program, she became acquainted with Alabama Ballet as a teen because her sister was a company member. "Since we're unranked, there are also opportunities for new dancers to perform solo roles," says Czernobil. "An apprentice might be cast in the corps and also in a variation. We cheer everyone on."

Dancers dressed in colorful 1950s style costumes onstage doing a social dance step

Alabama Ballet dancers Luiza Boaventura and Frederick Lee Rocas in Dennis Nahat's Blue Sude Shoes

Courtesy Alabama Ballet


Alabama Ballet dancers can expect to work from around 10 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. Alvey and VanFleteren take turns teaching daily company class, and in rehearsals for featured roles, Alvey works with the women while VanFleteren coaches the men. "The studio is a place where you leave your baggage at the door," says Alvey. "I'm firm, but fair. I expect the dancers to work as hard as I do. The studio should be a positive place." Czernobil notes that all company dancers get to work with them directly, since Alvey and VanFleteren rehearse both corps scenes and soloist roles.

Since Alvey took the helm, she's increased the length of contracts from 25 to 30 weeks per season. Over the next two years, she's aiming to add two more weeks. Next season, the company will welcome Balanchine's Western Symphony to its rep, and Alvey hopes to continue adding more works by renowned choreographers. "I have to budget creatively to do it, but it's worth it," she says.

When répétiteurs and choreographers come to set work on Alabama Ballet, Czernobil says that they are consistently impressed by the quality of the company. "Darla Hoover, the Balanchine répétiteur who sets The Nutcracker on us every year, calls us a 'little gem in the South.' "

Alabama Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 25, plus 12 apprentices

Length of contract: 30 weeks

AGMA signatory: No

Performances per season: 30-plus, along with tours to about four cities in Alabama and Mississippi

Website: alabamaballet.org

Audition Advice

"Since we aren't defined by our rep, neither are our dancers," says Alvey. "But an aesthetic I look for both in women and men is beautiful feet and legs." For female dancers, Alvey seeks a height range from about 5' 2" to 5' 6". "Often, when a woman who is taller than that sends me an application, I'll let her know that she's a lovely dancer, but will be up front about what I'm looking for. I feel that's fair so that she doesn't spend time and money coming to audition."

The company has one open audition per year at their studios, typically in March, and about 50 dancers attend. Dancers can also submit applications to be considered for company class. "I usually only invite someone to class if I think they might be a potential hire," says Alvey. "Overall, I receive about 400 applications per year, and I go through each one individually."

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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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