How Picasso and the Syrian War Inspired Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's New "Guernica" at San Francisco Ballet

In honor of its 85th anniversary, San Francisco Ballet has commissioned works from 12 internationally-recognized choreographers to contribute to the company's Unbound: A Festival of New Works, now in progress. Pointe spoke with Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and corps member Solomon Golding about the process of making Guernica, Ochoa's work inspired by the painting of the same name by Pablo Picasso.


As a piece of art, Picasso's Guernica is iconic for its portrayal of the terrors of war. What made you want to bring it to SFB audiences at this time?

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa: I knew I wanted to use Picasso as a starting point. I'm a fan of cubism, I like seeing the face in geometric form. I had seen a video on CNN of a chemical attack on a Syrian village. Normally I would press the "stop" button. This time, I realized that I had a moral obligation to give it my full attention. I asked myself, "What can I do, as a human being and as an artist, to make it exist for a public that is as inclined as I am to press the stop button?" While I don't compare myself to him, Picasso had the same reaction, and created the painting Guernica. The village in Syria, like Guernica, is a place where few people go. It's not beautiful, and the painting is not meant to be beautiful.

Can you talk about the music for this piece?

ALO: It was about finding music that would fit the theme. Orchestra music is too pretty, so it is electronics with two solo instruments. The composers are Raime and Michel Banabila. It ends with a piano solo by Charles-Valentin Arkan. Its forcefulness creates a mood of violence for the dancers.

You are working with dancers who are in their early careers. What do you expect them to take away from this experience, and what will you take away from working with them, in terms of their generation's outlook?

ALO: I don't see it from the perspective of what I expect from them. I am hoping that they too want to say something about these world events, and feel responsible for the message. Ballet is about grace and beauty, but also has the power to transmit a message.

Solomon Golding: I have been working with so many different choreographers to prepare for Unbound, and each experience is so different. In Annabelle's case, it's a genuine collaboration, as opposed to others who come in with everything already set. We workshopped for a week, which I like.

ALO: The dancers were preselected. There was no choice: "Here's the palette, here are your ingredients. Make something!"

SG: We learned to create reciprocating levels of energy. The choreography is punchy immediately. It's rare to do classical with a level of attack done in this way. It took me beyond my normal boundaries, but I liked being comfortable with being uncomfortable.


Anabelle Lopez Ochoa in rehearsal. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.

Solomon, what else distinguishes Annabelle from other choreographers you've worked with?

SG: There's a level of respect coming from both choreographer and dancer. It makes our job so much easier. We are dancing aggressively six hours a day, but in the way that she works, with great empathy, there are no injuries! When a choreographer comes into a room offering respect, not judging anyone, taking a little longer to explain or demonstrate, that makes a big difference.

ALO: I prefer to approach them with reinforcement. "Actually that looks better. . ." Also, I like to discard what doesn't work when they have a better idea, being flexible in order to create. I am working with 24 different personalities. You have to build your piece. I am not good at counts, so I delegate—one of them will do the counts. It gives you a chance to see who they are and to enhance everyone's strength. It's their piece.

Picasso's Guernica has a certain historic legacy in the art world. Does that enliven the work with inspiration and at the same time imply a special burden of responsibility for the dancers?

ALO: I'm not making a replica of the painting. It is my response, having studied the painting, studied Picasso. It's an ode to an artist. I secretly hope that the dancers will go on Wikipedia to research the painting. What is this artwork that we all know the name of? We have violence and we have beauty. How do you translate cubism into movement? The duets weren't looking cubist, so I'm doing four couples instead. I have to get it right, because I will never as long as I live do it again.


Dores André in rehearsal for "Guernica." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

What do you find most challenging about the work?

SG: It's so punchy, so dynamic, so it's about finding moments of light and shade. Doing it all high energy can end up flat-lining it. As in the painting when you look at it, its hexagonal, but then you see moments of tenderness, such as the crying mother. So you have to take care because it can end up being linear if you don't find light and shade.

What message does Guernica convey?

ALO: I'm ending the piece with a message that the bull is both victim and aggressor. Each of us has both an aggressive and peaceful aspect. For those who tip the balance toward aggression, we have to ask why. I followed the families who had been subjected to the chemical attack. There is a little girl wearing a Disney T-shirt. She put her doll in a box, and said to the doll, "You might get asphyxiated, but at least you won't see terror." The final pose is as in the painting, an embrace.

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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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