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What's Ahead for Ballet Companies in the Age of COVID-19?

Let's be frank: No one knows what's ahead for the performing arts in the U.S. With COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of nearly a year of performances so far, including many Nutcrackers, ballet companies face a daunting path ahead with no roadmap for how to survive. While schools can offer classes online or in small groups, what does the future hold for companies when it's not safe to gather large audiences or corps de ballet?

"We are in for a very hard set of months," says Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. "Nothing will change until there's a vaccine."

Pointe set out to find out what the new normal looks like while the virus is with us.

Online Content and Digital Seasons

When COVID-19 hit, it seemed everything moved online that could, from galas to company class. In a recent online panel, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie said the company's May online gala, which did not include much dancing, was well-received but not a financial success. The Washington Ballet's gala centered on livestreamed performances and was financially successful. But afterwards, artistic director Julie Kent, a company dancer and a gala chairwoman became ill with COVID-19, despite social distancing and other safety precautions.

Can online platforms be a safe, longer-term source of income and artistic outlet for ballet companies?

Marc Kirschner, a founder of the paid performing arts streaming service Marquee TV, says this moment is a line in the sand for companies' survival.

"Whether or not companies can figure out how to incorporate digital into their strategy is going to decide which will fold," says Kirschner. "Linking digital programming to data, marketing and operations is a long-term necessity. COVID has only made this more clear."

He says that rather than put up old footage with rudimentary filming, companies can use this moment to make high-quality captures of live contemporary works. "No one needs to film another Swan Lake. Dance companies need to focus on what makes them different," he says. "New works are in demand on Marquee TV, and those can be made with smaller casts and filmed in front of a house with 20 percent capacity."

Kirschner acknowledges that filming can be prohibitively expensive, but stresses that an innovative digital strategy is key for companies to develop and keep audiences now and in the future—and that it's a mistake for companies to give content away for free.

In a darkened space, an iPad on a tripod shows a male and female dancer, who are in the background behind the device, in street clothes facing each other.

Louisville Ballet dancers Mark Krieger and Natalia Ashikhmina

Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet

Louisville Ballet is trying a paid approach, with a 2020–21 digital season subscription starting at $125. Artistic director Robert Curran is planning a series of dance-art films, works created specifically for digital, rather than presenting filmed live performances. He's betting that this will expand the company's artistic horizon in a way that can carry it through the pandemic.

"I've wanted to explore this for some time, but we were never able to with all of our other programming," says Curran. "We hope this will not only engage our subscribers but show the dance world that Louisville is a place where new ideas about ballet are happening."

Funding this digital season is still something Curran is figuring out, and he's unsure how much work will be produced. He's also planning to keep dancers in small pods in hopes of preventing the spread of the virus, but acknowledges illness could derail his plans, as keeping dancers safe is the main priority.

A female dancer with long blonde hair and wearing a black long-sleeved leotard, does a d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 devant with her right leg while pulling off pointe.

City Ballet of San Diego's Chelsey Kuhn in Geoffrey Gonzalez's Dark Room Series

Jaroslav Richter Photography, Courtesy City Ballet of San Diego

Geoffrey Gonzalez, a dancer and resident choreographer with City Ballet of San Diego, found a way to create new digital work without much risk of spreading the virus with his Dark Room Series. He transformed the company's studio into a black box and filmed solos that he edited into a 15-minute work, where the dancers sometimes appear to be dancing together. The purpose was to have a touchpoint with the audience but also to nurture artistry.

"Quarantine was like my feet were caked in cement," Gonzalez says. "I had to find a way to work, and so did the dancers. It was about fulfilling physical and spiritual needs as artists."

He offered the film for free. He says it's succeeded in keeping the audience interested, and has since managed to receive $10,000 in support from donors to make these socially distant pieces. "People can see we're still working, we're not going away," says Gonzalez. "If we ask for financial help, we need to show there's new things to support, in whatever form."

Kaiser believes online content is a good tool for audience development, but cautions against companies investing in it too heavily right now at the expense of longer-term planning. "What's critical is not putting another performance online, but getting audiences excited about what the company will be doing when they come back," says Kaiser. "There's a ceiling for how excited people will get about online content."

Reimagining Live Performances

Small venues might be the best, and only, option for in-person shows. Gonzalez says the company is scaling back plans in an attempt to keep operating, with a 2020–21 budget of half a million dollars, down from $1.2 million. They are hoping to perform in smaller spaces with fewer dancers on contract, and focus on producing a new Nutcracker they have planned for 2021.

This strategy worked for some European companies, as Europe is ahead of the U.S. in containing the virus. Norwegian National Ballet split its dancers into small groups and performed in locations across Norway, mostly schools and elder homes. This kept the dancers working and expanded the company's audience.

"Many of those we met said this was their first encounter with ballet," says Maria Børja, a spokesperson for the company.

Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director of Alberta Ballet, is planning a similar season for the remainder of 2020. He plans to break the company into groups of eight and have them all rehearse the same program of solos and duets. To keep the dancers safe, casting them in duets or small group work will only happen if they can dance with someone they live with, such as a spouse or roommate.

"It's an artistic challenge, to strip our work of production values and big groups of dancers," says Grand-Maître. "But performing on a raised stage in a hospital parking lot is a way of bringing hope to people and a way for us to stay relevant."

Grand-Maître says the board is committed to keeping the dancers employed through this period, even though the company will be without performance income for the remainder of 2020 (including a Nutcracker season that usually earns over $2 million). The crucial support of the Canadian government's wage-subsidy program helps make this possible.

"We are better off staying open than shutting down and starting from scratch," he says.

Kaiser says spending on reduced programming that creates or worsens a deficit can work for larger companies with board support, or foreign companies with strong state support. But he cautions that surviving the pandemic is most important, even if it means laying off dancers and staff.

"What companies need to do right now is hoard cash," he says. "Spending just to be seen isn't as important as being ready for reopening, when the competition of everything coming back at once will be intense."

A New Daily Life

Hong Kong Ballet spent much of the spring rehearsing in small groups, wearing masks and conducting temperature checks. Company member Amber Lewis says it was challenging to come back to the studio under these conditions. "In the first few weeks, everyone was kind of afraid to touch each other," she says. "We'd be sanitizing our hands constantly, struggling to breathe in the mask." But as Hong Kong's infection numbers dropped, she says the fear went away.

However, in mid-July, there was a new wave of infections and theaters had to close once again. Dancers resumed classes on Zoom, followed by a gradual return to the studio starting August 10.

Hong Kong Ballet's artistic director Septime Webre says he encourages dancers and directors to find creative opportunities in challenging circumstances. Webre used the time rehearsing in small groups to workshop material for his new version of Romeo & Juliet, which he was able to finish choreographing before the mid-July shutdown. He also moved the company's outdoor pop-up performance series online.

"The lessons of this time are that we need to keep thinking about new ways to reach our audience and provide them with art. That's not going away," he says. "But it's also that every plan A needs a B and C behind it."

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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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