America’s Training Ground

For many ballet students living in suburban areas of America, being a bunhead can be an isolated life, with infrequent opportunities to see professional ballets performed live and little access to students outside their own schools.

For these dancers, Regional Dance America, or “festival” as participants call it, is a way to share their passion for the artform with hundreds of their colleagues who study ballet in similar environments, take classes from new teachers and perform for a discriminating audience made up of their peers. “This is the only chance a lot of the dancers from the suburbs get to see their contemporaries, especially if they don’t go to summer programs,” says Regina Moyano, co-director of DanceWest Ballet in Naperville, IL, whose company participated in the Mid-States Regional Dance America Festival that was hosted by Alexandra Ballet in St. Louis earlier this year. “This is their time to be with their own kind.”

“Regional dance,” once a pejorative term, has now come to describe a community of teachers and dancers committed to improving the quality of ballet training and performance at the local level. RDA, founded in 1988 by the National Association for Regional Ballet, aims to achieve this goal by holding annual festivals in each of its five regions, where members come together to take class and to perform. (RDA currently has 94 member companies nationwide.)

“RDA takes serious studios from suburban areas and puts them all together,” says Matthew Frain, 17, also of DWB. At this year’s Mid-States Festival, a tightly knit group of devoted directors, teachers, students and parents gathered to support each other in the technical and artistic growth of their respective youth companies.

Day One

The first day of the three-day festival began with breakfast, followed by morning classes held in partitioned hotel ballrooms renamed for ballet bigwigs (Petipa, Ashton, Pavlova), each equipped with dance floors, barres and pianos. Throughout the day, buses ferried groups between the hotel and the theater at the University of Missouri–St. Louis for rehearsals in preparation for the evening’s performances.

The ranging levels of technical proficiency of the 14 participating companies made class more challenging for some, but the guest faculty, which included Trinette Singleton, Alan Hineline and Randall Newsom, pushed each student to do more.

A key part of the festival experience is exposure to different teaching styles, says Mai Uesaka, a 16-year-old dancer who has been studying with Michigan Classic Ballet since her family moved from Aichi, Japan, five years ago. “You just have to keep an open mind,” says Uesaka, adding that she has also learned from observing others whose techniques seem to be working and those whose are not. AB’s Consuelo Williams, 17, agrees, “So many dancers with different training come together to make this melting pot of dance, and you get new corrections that you wouldn’t get at your home studio.”

At the end of the day, which had some students taking up to four classes from a selection that included technique, pointe, pas de deux, character and modern, everyone took a dinner break and prepared for the first performances of the weekend. Before curtain, AB’s artistic director, Alexandra Zaharias, reminded the dancers about proper audience etiquette—enthusiastic applause and decorous “bravos” were acceptable, hooting and hollering were not.

AB, the host company, which had celebrated its 20th anniversary two months earlier, opened the Showcase Performance with the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère. (Guest artists Maya Makhateli and Nathan Vander Stoep from Colorado Ballet danced Nikiya and Solor.) The remaining opening night works—many created by RDA students—had been preselected by a special panel of adjudicators. The evening closed with Divertissements, a ballet choreographed for select dancers from each of the member companies by Salt Creek Ballet Co-Director Sergey Kozadayev.

Day Two

A familiar scene began the second day: Scores of dancers lined the hotel hallways gingerly taping blistered toes before cramming feet into their shoes for another long dancing day. The schedule, while intense, gives them a taste of professional life. “Just waking up in the morning and going to class first thing is the best,” says DWB’s Jamie Ripsky, 17.

Later on, in Rosanna Ruffo’s variations class, Ripsky was a standout in a variation from Le Corsaire; the other students studied her intently. “She’s gorgeous,” whispered one dancer to her friend, who nodded emphatically while the class applauded. This exchange was emblematic of the weekend’s supportive atmosphere. Many dancers who have been coming to festival for multiple years have forged friendships with students from other companies, keeping in touch throughout the year. “Your dance friends are with you all the time,” says Williams. “They understand things that your school friends never will.”

Uesaka, Frain, Ripsky and Williams all have professional aspirations. “A lot of girls around here want to be in ABT or NYCB—everyone has their dream company,” says Frain. “But my favorite company in the world is the National Ballet of Cuba. All their dancers are really amazing. I’d have to get very good.” But rising through the ranks is at the top of his list. “I don’t want to be just good. I want to be the best.”

The second evening of performances is called the Concert Program. The performances display how each company has grown in the year since the last festival, but they are also an opportunity for dancers to enjoy a large stage in a theater with all the accoutrements, something they might not have with their home companies. “I really enjoy being onstage, but we usually perform at a high school, so being on a big stage and getting to move is good,” says Uesaka, who that night danced the role of the Summer Fairy in an excerpt from Cinderella.

Day Three

On the final day of the festival, instead of a second morning class, everyone attended a special seminar on Antony Tudor given by Sally Brayley-Bliss, executive director of Dance St. Louis. Other educational opportunities offered throughout the weekend included kinesiology, a class on how to audition and a session on musicality taught by the University of Utah’s Rob Wood.

The final performance is typically a Gala Evening that features the festival’s most regarded works. (Each piece performed is ranked on a point system beforehand by an independent adjudicator—this year it was choreographer and former ABT soloist Charles Maple.) Following tradition, the audience wore its best attire—many of them in gowns and suits. AB opened the program again, this time with an excerpt from Esmeralda, with Williams in the title role. She explained earlier that she tries to be a little anxious before taking the stage, citing the one time she was completely calm as the only instance she’s ever fallen in a performance. But she hid any nervousness, and her performance was received by the audience with a standing ovation.

After the show, the festival wrapped up with an elegant banquet back at the hotel. As everyone gathered in the hall, a video featuring highlights from the last three days was projected onto a wall. After dinner, honors, scholarships and awards were given out, including scholarships to RDA’s annual Craft of Choreography Conference, which offers both emerging and seasoned choreographers a forum to create works on dancers.

As the evening wrapped up, dancers made their goodbyes and exchanged addresses. Ripsky summed up the experience: “[RDA] has been a huge part of my training,” she said, happily clutching the scholarship she had received that night. For more:

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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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