Alexandre Hammoudi as Von Rothbart in Swan Lake.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Alexandre Hammoudi Says Goodbye to ABT, and Hello to Filmmaking and Directing His Own Company

Over the last 18 years, American Ballet Theatre's Alexandre Hammoudi has become a household name. So Instagram was abuzz when the longtime soloist's departure from the company was announced, leaving fans shocked and saddened. His career has been one that aspiring dancers can only dream of: After dancing for two years with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the French-born Hammoudi joined the ABT Studio Company in 2002, the main company as an apprentice in 2003, and the corps de ballet the following year. He was promoted to soloist in 2012 and has since danced leading roles in the classical ballet canon, including Prince Siegfried, Romeo, Albrecht and Prince Désiré. He also created leading roles in Alexei Ratmansky's Seven Sonatas and Thirteen Diversions, among others. On top of that, in 2017 he launched Makers Dance Company, which aims to present new dance works through multiple platforms, from live performance to the screen.

Most dancers would already be satisfied with that resumé. But Hammoudi has always been fueled by a drive and curiosity for new ways to tell stories, particularly through film. Pointe caught up with him by phone to talk about his remarkable career at ABT, and what's next for him.

ALexandre Hammoudi, wearing white and gold tights, gold bolero jacket and red cape, stands in sixth position and arches over to his left, arms raised high and fingers pointed.

Hammoudi as Espada in Don Quixote

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Your departure from ABT seemed to come as a surprise to your fans. Is this something you've been planning for a while?

I have been thinking about it for about two years. I had an injury about five years ago that was pretty hard to come back from, but I did and then I danced principal roles for about two-and-a-half years. But my mind and priorities began to shift. Once I had my surgery about four years ago, it was a a reality check for me on what else could I do if something went wrong.

I've always been into film, so I started taking filmmaking more seriously. I had done a couple of projects where I was either choreographing or directing, and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed working with people.

Are you sad that you didn't get a final spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House or farewell performance?

I always loved participating in other people's farewell performances with the confetti and everything, but I didn't want that for myself. I'm not a shy person, but I've always had the sentiment about not making a big thing; just making it personal and meaningful. But then when COVID-19 happened and I wasn't going to have that last 2020 Met season to finish, I felt sad about not being able to retire on the stage.

So what's next for you?

I am going to do freelance video and movie-making. I've already presented work at film festivals and produced and directed shorts. I really want to do a lot more with dance on film, and I also would really just like to make movies. I've used this pandemic to work on my student film projects. I have also been fortunate enough to do some work for ABT, which I am very excited about.

Also, Makers Dance Company premiered a work at Kaatsbaan in November 2019, which was really an explosive, creative part of my life. It was great to be able to work with these dancers I have known for a while now.

How did you manage to develop your skills in film while also juggling all the demands at ABT?

Watching movies has always been a passion for me. When I was a kid, my mother did wardrobe for a really successful TV network in France. I grew up on TV sets and theaters and always had that behind-the-scenes curiosity. So, I started taking courses during my downtime and online. I am a big believer that you can learn a lot through practice. I was always doing little things with cameras, just for myself.

Will you still work on Makers Dance Company?

Yes. I hope to dedicate more towards creating new work and not be the company's only creator or choreographer. Once the economy is going again, I would love for Makers to be a place that can curate work. That will be my way of staying in the dance world.

After 18 years at ABT, what are you most proud of?

My colleagues and friends organized a surprise Zoom farewell for me and I am just immensely grateful that I had this career. You work hard and you do what you need to do to better yourself. So many people would love to be in ABT, so I feel very, very grateful and super fortunate. When I joined the company, we had José Manuel Carreño, Ethan Stiefel and Angel Corella. It was already a treat to be in the corps while they were performing.

What's your advice for young dancers?

Work hard. Keep pushing. Now more than ever, if you have the drive and have a dream, just push the envelope. It's a very challenging environment right now because many people don't have a place to dance and are missing out on summer intensives. It's going to be a learning curve. But no matter what, the advice is still the same – follow your dream and work as hard as you can.

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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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