Bringing Color To Ballet

Diversity is not going to just happen to ballet companies—that much is clear. At a time when attitudes toward race seem to be evolving—in this country and across the globe—dancers of color are still too few and far between when it comes to ballet.

Yet the situation is not at a standstill. Under the radar, and very much in a spirit of self-determination, young artistic directors such as Cassa Pancho in London, Robyn Gardenhire in Los Angeles and Donna Jacobs in Baltimore, to mention only three out of the many who have taken the initiative, are creating needed opportunities.

Not so very long ago, black dancers were denied the chance to even learn ballet, never mind join a company. Despite such an obstacle, the history of blacks in ballet is rich with pioneers such as Joseph Rickard, whose First Negro Classic Ballet debuted in 1947, and Arthur Mitchell, who with Karel Shook founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969. Few would now hold that blacks are incapable of dancing classical ballet, but without concerted effort, it will be a while before, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, dancers of any race or ethnicity will be judged by the quality of their dancing rather than the color of their skin.

Ballet’s current lack of diversity is making for a self-fulfilling prophecy. With DTH still on hiatus and few black professionals in other companies, role models are in short supply.

“If you don’t see blacks on the stage in ballet enough, then you don’t identify with it,” says Gardenhire, artistic director of City Ballet of Los Angeles, the company and school she founded in 2000.

Gardenhire is one of the rare African American females who can look back on a successful career in ballet, having danced with such companies as Joffrey II, Cleveland Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. After she retired, she returned to her hometown and eventually started a school and then a company, which is now in the Pico Union district of downtown L.A.

“For the school, I wanted to get those kids who are not getting the best training and put it in an area they can access,” she says, “but I want the company, because when you are a kid, seeing what you are working toward is key. When you have professional dancers walking around and in rehearsal, it’s like heaven. It was for me.”

With similar grit, Pancho, artistic director of London’s Ballet Black, is tackling the shortage of ballet dancers of color in Britain.

“I started Ballet Black after doing a dissertation about black women in ballet in the UK,” says Pancho. “I originally thought that I would interview five black ballerinas to see what they had to say. But I couldn’t find any—I couldn’t even find a corps de ballet dancer.”

Pancho’s expectations may spring from her background. “My father is West Indian; my mother is British,” she says. “My family environment was half black, half white, so for me to get to professional ballet school and suddenly be in a completely white atmosphere was a little strange for me.”

When it came time to find dancers for her own company, she soon discovered that high-caliber dancers of color were hard to find. “If you look at a tape of our early work, you would probably cringe. You’d think, ‘Those people aren’t ballet dancers,’ but we had to start somewhere,” she says. “As we went along, and as we got more money and more recognition, we were able to bring in more people of a higher standard. And each year the standard goes up.”

However, she still struggles to find qualified dancers. At a recent London audition, no black dancers tried out, despite a push to expose minorities to the arts. “There definitely has been a big shift here. The ‘in’ thing is to encourage black kids to study ballet,” says Pancho. “But with ballet, because it takes so long, it’s not like playing soccer in school, where you can just kick around a ball and play with all of your friends for free. You can’t learn ballet any way but one way, and I think that’s the problem—why we have such a deficit.”

And while outreach programs here and abroad introduce young people to the strengths of ballet training, such as learning self-discipline, focus and the value of hard work, they are geared to be educational rather than recruitment programs. This means that there is little follow-through between outreach programs and company academies, where future professional dancers are trained. Without nurturing, talented dancers of any color may make other choices rather than entering the field

and sticking with it.

“People want to do what they see,” says Donna Jacobs, who is an African American choreographer and artistic director of the multiethnic Full Circle Dance Company. “What children see as little ones may be that ballerina image, but when they grow up, they see So You Think You Can Dance, modern, hip hop or jazz—all of these other things that are in the marketplace.”

And if aspiring students—and their parents—do take ballet’s gamble, the reality is that a winning combination of talent, good training and hard work still may not add up to a contract, let alone stardom.

“Success in classical ballet? Even for white dancers—a rarity,” says Gardenhire. “It is a rare animal who can do this. Ballerinas themselves are minorities, any way you look at it.”

Knowing this can make self-doubt as much a factor as institutional rejection. “We tend to not dare think that we could actually put a tutu on and be a ballerina. But you need to just look at the art form as art, and the body as that thing that inspires awe in an audience, as opposed to looking at just the cover of it,” Gardenhire says. “There’s this magic that happens that can’t be explained most of the time. You watch a dancer who is absolutely technically superior to everybody onstage, but that other person over there is an amazing artist. And art doesn’t have a color to it.”

Embracing difference and maintaining standards are compatible objectives. A passé is a passé, no matter who executes it. “What’s foremost is the absolute technical training, the striving for excellence, the knowing what it is that you need to do at any given moment and being able to execute it in a great way,” says Jacobs, whose company performs contemporary and modern works, although the training is based in ballet.

Full Circle Dance, Ballet Black and City Ballet of Los Angeles were all founded in 2000, and, as each director will tell you, there is still work to be done, but the commitment to make a difference is strong. Recently Ballet Black got a boost by becoming a resident company of The Royal Opera House and will have its next performances in April at the Linbury Studio Theatre.

“My ideal goal for Ballet Black is that it become completely obsolete, in however many years it takes,” says Pancho. “I feel we are on our way. Our dancers now go on to mainstream companies, and that is the goal, to see more black and Asian dancers throughout ballet—to change the landscape.”

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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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