Ballet For A New Generation

While ballet dancers in sneakers performing a steamy duet in the middle of two abandoned train tracks may sound like something out of a game of truth or dare, it’s actually a scene in a new film being produced by New York City Ballet soloists Sean Suozzi and Ellen Bar. Based on Jerome Robbins’s NY Export: Opus Jazz and entitled Opus Jazz: The Film, this movie will be the first to feature Robbins’s choreography since the iconic West Side Story, as well as the first film to be conceived, produced and danced by members of NYCB.

Originally choreographed in 1958, Opus Jazz is steeped in themes that speak to every generation—the energy of youth, a hunger for life and throwing caution to the wind. Suozzi and Bar, both 27, are not only colleagues but best friends who fell in love with the ballet when it was revived for NYCB’s 2005 spring season at the State Theater—the first time the rarely seen ballet, created for the first Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, had been performed by NYCB.

Neither Suozzi nor Bar had worked directly with the choreographer. “Robbins died right after I got in the company, so I only sat in a few rehearsals with him as a corps understudy,” says Bar. “It was thrilling to watch him work. I always felt a connection with his ballets and that I understood him through his ballets.”   

Opus Jazz, which is choreographed in five sections, immediately struck Suozzi and Bar as the perfect piece to introduce newcomers to ballet. “When we were rehearsing in our own clothes, the dancing felt very contemporary and of-the-moment,” says Suozzi. “The fact that it is a piece from the 1950s doesn’t make it any less modern.” The choreography, which includes knee slides and sharp, angular arms may be reminiscent of jazz, but the movement is essentially classical. The casual-looking costumes (tights, sneakers and tunics) add to the effect. In the movie, the dancers wear contemporary street wear.

“I remember standing in the wings and thinking, ‘If the audience likes this piece so much onstage, I wonder what they’d think if we could show them the choreography in context, to put it in the city that inspired its creation in the first place,” says Suozzi.

The two dancers put together a proposal and met with each of the nine members of The Robbins Rights Trust. “We didn’t have any formal help with the proposal,” says Bar. “I wrote it, and Sean designed it; we just knew it had to reflect our vision, and we followed our instincts about the questions people reading it would have.” The project, with a projected budget of $800,000, was unanimously approved, and Suozzi and Bar received the first filming rights given by the trust since Robbins’s death in 1998. And while NYCB has no official tie to the project, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins endorses it.   

While prepared for the possibility of not being taken seriously, the pair say they’ve received a more positive and supportive response than expected—leaving them free to focus on their responsibilities as producers. “We are in charge of leading the team and making sure that the vision is realized,” says Bar.

“This means making final creative decisions, choosing who we work with, choosing locations, making final costume decisions, as well as keeping the project afloat by trying to raise interest and funds.”

Famous New York artist Ben Shahn designed the ballet’s original abstract urban backdrop, but for the film, Suozzi and Bar have found a different city location for each of the ballet’s sections. “Many dances wouldn’t translate to film, because they are meant for the stage, but this one not only translates, with real locations it seems to take on new dimension and meaning,” says Bar.

The goal was not to find the most beautiful shot but the most appropriate one to go with the mood or emotional quality of the dances. “Shooting on location also appeals because it puts dance in a real place, among real people, making it a form of expression that is easier to identify with,” says Bar. “The locations we’ve chosen portray the city as both urban and remote, a place where you can still be an individual among millions of people.”

As the film begins, each of the 16 characters arrives at their hangout, the Tobacco Warehouse, the remains of an 18th-century brick structure with arches and only sky for a roof in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. “One person might be coming from the subway and another walking down a street,” says Suozzi. Other locations include a stage in an empty theater, a school gymnasium and a city rooftop at night, where three boys and one girl, after feeling restless at a party, have gone exploring only to find their ways to each other under the stars.   

The fourth movement, a duet called “Passage for Two,” was the only one completed at press time. It has already won an award in the Netherlands for adapting dance from stage to screen. The section was filmed atop The High Line, an elevated train track on the far west side of Manhattan. “Passage for Two” was shot over two days last August, hours before construction was to begin on the multi-year renovation of the area into a public park.

The rundown and overgrown space had to be cleared of hundreds of beer bottles, a toaster oven, kitchenware and a live cat before shooting. The performers, NYCB soloists Rachel Rutherford and Craig Hall, danced the ultra sexy pas de deux 25 times under the blazing sun during two sweltering days. Footage of the day’s last run through, caught in the midst of a magnificent sunset under a sky pregnant with rain, made the final cut.

Shot in one continuous take, using only available light and 35-mm film, the end product has a slightly retro look that suits the section’s subtext. The duet is about two people who can’t be together. At the time it was choreographed, the piece caused a stir when performed by an interracial couple.

“Many artists want to challenge audiences, and being controversial is of course one way of doing that,” says Suozzi. “But we also think that Jerry would never make an artistic choice purely to be controversial. It could be as simple as the aesthetic beauty of the way the two skin tones look next to each other; you can really read it however you want, and that’s the beauty of it.” The sensual movements, mixed with passion and a sense of urgency that imply a forbidden love, are punctuated by having the lovers meet on a deserted, off-limits train track high above the street.

The creative team—Suozzi, Bar, co-directors Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes and art director Ariel Schulman—works collaboratively, a process that has allowed them to learn from each other while maintaining a sense of responsibility to make something that Robbins himself, a notorious taskmaster and perfectionist, would have approved of.   

Suozzi and Bar have a lot of work ahead of them. Despite having the majority of the budget still left to raise, the two would like to have the money in hand by August in order to finish shooting when NYCB is on break. “Our hopes for the film are for it to make people excited about and interested in dance, so that they seek out live dance and make it a part of their lives,” explains Bar. “The characters are restless urban teens, wearing street clothing and dealing with contemporary issues, which makes them much easier to identify with than people in tights or tiaras and tutus.”

Sara Jarrett is a freelance writer in New York City.

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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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