The dancers of Bolshoi Ballet in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Bolshoi Is Back Onstage: We Went Inside Bryan Arias' Latest Work

This summer, when parts of the world were slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown, all live performing arts events having been canceled or postponed, choreographer Bryan Arias found himself in Moscow creating a brand-new work for the Bolshoi Ballet.

Arias, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem, and danced with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2 and Kidd Pivot, had been invited by Bolshoi artistic director Makhar Vaziev to be part of an impromptu program of contemporary choreography titled Four Characters in Search of a Plot. Three other international choreographers—Martin Chaix (France), Dimo Milev (Bulgaria) and Simone Valastro (Italy)—had also been asked to participate. This program, unusual by all standards for Russia's esteemed classical ballet company, opened the Bolshoi's 245th ballet season on September 10. Eager to resume live events, the theater introduced a number of safety regulations for audience members, including limited and spaced-out seating, temperature checks upon entry and audio messages reminding patrons to wear masks and maintain social distance.

Below, Arias talks about his trip to Russia and his experience of creating his new piece, The Ninth Wave, on the Bolshoi Ballet dancers.



A bare-chested male dancer squats and balances the body of a ballerina costumed in blue, who lays across his legs.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Vladislav Lantratov in Bryan Arias' The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

The Phone Call From Moscow

"Because of the pandemic, all my plans got shifted into the future and there was no certainty about anything. I was in quarantine in Basel, Switzerland, feeling a bit lost and trying to stay inspired and motivated. And out of nowhere I got a phone call from Makhar Vaziev, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, with an offer to come to Moscow and to choreograph whatever I would like. I agreed on the spot—I was ready to do anything at that moment. We decided right then that I would do a 60-minute piece, with a cast of 40 dancers, and I would use live music. This would be a ballet with the largest number of dancers I had ever worked with."

Traveling to Russia During the Pandemic

"Everything about the trip seemed suspended and improvised. I was scheduled to travel on July 19 but on July 16 I still didn't have my Russian visa. When I finally got the visa, one day prior to my departure, I was told at the embassy that there was no guarantee that I would be able to enter into the country. Next day, I packed my bag and took a train to Paris; from there I went to a small airport servicing only private jets. There I met the three other choreographers. It was my first time traveling to Moscow and up until the end of the trip it all felt unreal."

A man wearing glasses and a green puffy jacket takes a selfie in front of a maritime painting that shows a ship capsizing in a storm.

Arias in front of a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.

Courtesy Bryan Arias

Inspiration for "The Ninth Wave"

"In my preparation for The Ninth Wave, I wanted to dive into all things Russian, so I surrounded myself with Russian art and music, and I began reading a lot about Russian history and culture. When I first saw the works of maritime painter Ivan Aivazovsky, I just felt inspired by his art. He lived a secluded life in a small town on the Black Sea. The imagery of the sea is so rich with possibilities, and my imagination just took off. I also found a connection between the art of Aivazovsky and the music of Mikhail Glinka and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When I imagined their music performed live—it just felt right."

Selecting the Cast

"I had five days before the Bolshoi officially began working after the lockdown. Mr. Vaziev selected a group of 50 corps de ballet dancers who, in his view, would be a good fit for this project. From there, all four choreographers started watching the company's classes. There were six to eight classes per day. Usually I would select a small group of dancers to work separately in a studio, just to feel how they carry themselves and to better understand their body language, their personality and chemistry. With the principal dancers (opening night starred Ekaterina Krysanova, Vladislav Lantratov, Evgenia Obraztsova, Artemy Belyakov and Jacopo Tissi), I was trying to figure out what I could do to showcase them in a new light. I wanted the audience to see these dancers, whom they know and love, through a different lens."

A bare-chested male dancer, wearing blue pants and with blue makeup on his chest and throat, does a large sissone on a darkened stage.

Bolshoi Ballet leading soloist Jacopo Tissi in The Ninth Wave

Natalia Voronova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

Staying Safe During Rehearsals

"Sometimes it felt as if COVID-19 didn't even exist there. In reality, everyone was responsible; everyone had tremendous respect and care for each other. If the dancers didn't feel well, they wouldn't come to work; they would immediately go to a doctor's office to get tested. It all seemed very efficient and it worked."

Ballet With a Hip-Hop Twist

"I had a great connection with the dancers. Even though we had to use an interpreter in the studio, the dancers would understand me almost immediately. I have a hip-hop and salsa background, and I can create challenging movements with that abstract, hip-hop quality. But here I tapped in to my classical ballet knowledge, more than I have ever done before. I was obsessed with classical ballet when I was growing up, so the whole process of creating The Ninth Wave felt very satisfying—it's a classical ballet where I used the elements of hip hop to accentuate certain shapes and movements."

Long-Distance Collaborating

"I had to work with my collaborators online since some of them weren't able to come to Moscow due to the travel restrictions. It added a layer of difficulty to my work. My lighting designer created lighting for The Ninth Wave with a digital app. The design was sent to the Bolshoi and they were able to re-create it; and the costume designer did the same. Luckily, my projection designer was able to come; she created and manipulated a set of images of Aivazovsky's paintings, which were projected on a backdrop."

Opening Night

"When the curtain went up it all felt surreal. Even though all three performances were sold out, the theater was only partially occupied because of the safety regulations. The Bolshoi dancers are used to full houses, but they told me after the performance that it seemed as if the theater was completely packed because of the energy the audience gave them. They felt the audience's love and support."

A large group of dancers wearing blue costumes stand backstage around a choreographer in a suit, clapping towards him in congratulations.

Arias backstage with the cast of The Ninth Wave after the premiere

Courtesy Bryan Arias

Closing Thoughts

"The experience at the Bolshoi has humbled me. It made me feel free and valuable and ready to go wherever the water takes me. It brought newness to my life and my career. Hearing words of appreciation from the dancers for my work and feeling their gratitude meant a lot to me. And just to be able to work and to be in the present, to realize that we want to be in the now…It's a bit unfortunate to think that we had to have a pandemic to realize the importance of feeling that way."

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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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