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Angel Arrives

Corella Ballet makes its stateside debut.

Angel Corella: Choreographer? American audiences soon will see a new side of the American Ballet Theatre principal. Spain’s Corella Ballet brings Corella’s first stab at choreography to New York City Center this March.

Corella’s inspiration for the 35-minute String Sextet comes from the score, Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir from Florence.” “I never thought of myself as a choreographer, but this music was like a ghost haunting me,” Corella says. He describes his ballet, which premiered in Barcelona last July, as fresh and clean with a touch of romanticism.

CB’s City Center performances mark the young company’s first overseas tour—something Corella didn’t anticipate happening so soon. "Creating a classical ballet company today is very difficult,” he says, “but my name is generating some buzz and ticket sales are very promising.”

Corella hopes to go abroad frequently—tours to Japan and Brazil are already in the works. But he also wants to establish the com­pany's presence in Spain, where there are few classical ballet companies. Last season, CB performed in 55 Spanish cities, and this season it will perform in at least that many, if not more.

Is Corella nervous about his com­pany’s New York debut? Not at all. “I feel incredibly proud,” he says. “I’ve carried New York audiences’ love around my whole career. It’s exciting to be returning to the place that saw me mature as an artist.”  —Kristin Lewis

King David

A revamped version of the hit Kings of the Dance extravaganza comes to New York City Center this February. After last year’s successful Russian tour, this year’s pick-up troupe—which traveled around Europe before arriving in New York—features Jose Manuel Carreño, Guillaume Côté, Marcelo Gomes, David Hallberg, Denis Matvienko and Nikolay Tsiskaridze. “We’re a melting pot of styles and nationalities, which is fascinating for audiences,” says Hallberg, a veteran “king.”

Another selling point is the contemporary repertoire. “We’re not doing the standard gala fare,” Hallberg says. “It’s eclectic and modern.” Hallberg was especially excited to learn Duato’s turbulent Remanso, new to the Kings program this year. “I remember watching Vladimir Malakhov dance Remanso when I was 14 or 15, and thinking that it was a ballet that might feel comfortable on my body. It’s a masterpiece.”

Kings celebrates the renaissance of the bravura male ballet dancer. “The technical level of men’s dancing has gone up a notch,” Hallberg says. “It was Baryshnikov who set the precedent, but then people like Jose and Marcelo have carried on the tradition of powerful, masculine dancing. I’m proud to be able to share the stage with that kind of talent.” —Margaret Fuhrer

 

Neumeier’s Mermaid Swims to SFB

When most people think of The Little Mermaid, they picture cute animated guppies and cheery musical numbers. But there’s nothing Disney about John Neumeier’s ballet version of Mermaid. The modern tragedy will have its U.S. première when San Francisco Ballet performs it this March. “It’s a dark, heart-wrenching story,” says SFB principal Sarah Van Patten.

Van Patten knows that story inside and out: She is cast not only as the ill-fated Mermaid, but also as the Princess betrothed to the Mermaid’s Prince. “The Princess role is more difficult technically, because it’s performed on pointe, while the Mermaid is danced barefoot,” Van Patten says. “But I think the Princess is easier for me because she’s Juliet-like—naïve, innocent and above all human.” Dancing the Mermaid, on the other hand, “is about transcending technique and becoming a creature, a fish, which I’ve found much more challenging,” Van Patten says. “I’ve been a bird in Swan Lake, but never a fish!”

To create an appropriate look, Neumeier has his Mermaid wear long pants, sewn together at the ends, which trail behind her feet like a tail. The effect is visually striking—but the costume, Van Patten says, takes some getting used to. “Every time you take a step back, you have to flip your feet in a certain way so that the pants end up behind you, not tangled around your legs,” she says with a laugh. “But somehow John manages to incorporate the costume naturally. In the end, it really looks like you’re underwater.” —MF

Stephen Hanna Returns to NYCB

After an “awesome” year playing grown-up Billy in Billy Elliot on Broadway, Stephen Hanna has returned to his former home, New York City Ballet, as a principal.

While Hanna did local theater as a child, his Broadway turn wasn’t planned. An agent friend asked him to audition for adult Billy and, to his surprise, Hanna landed the role. “I didn’t know what  I was getting into,” Hanna admits. (One of his biggest challenges? Singing with the ensemble!)

Still, Hanna might consider working on Broadway again. “Broadway audiences are so responsive,” he says. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” —Susan Chitwood

 

The Washington Ballet’s Jazzy Gatsby

Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre believes that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, set in the roaring ’20s, is particularly relevant today. “We certainly know how the ’20s ended, and we too recently faced the bursting of an economic bubble,” he says. “The story’s message is ultimately one of moderation, even when times are flush.”

Webre hopes that this message will resonate with Washington Ballet audiences when his ballet version of Gatsby premieres at the Kennedy Center this February. But he also chose to choreograph Gatsby’s story because he finds it uniquely danceable. “The music, the exuberance, the exhilarating frenzy that was New York in the 1920s just explodes with dance,” he says.

A new score by jazz expert Billy Novick provides the beat for Webre’s lively dance party. An “old-time crooner,” as Webre describes him, will also read five short excerpts from Fitzgerald’s book. “Between the music and the spoken language and the dancing,” Webre says, “hopefully we’ll capture the energy of the era.” —MF

 

Pointe Style Watch: A Timeless Tutu

Look like a pro in pas de deux class with this classic white practice tutu from Algy. The 14” pancake-style tutu has four tiers of double net to keep it perky through hours of rehearsal. A top layer of soft chiffon keeps the netting from scratching your partner’s hands during pirouettes and lifts. —MF

 

Pointe Shoe Profile

Miami City Ballet’s Jennifer Kronenberg

Brand: Freed of London
Size: 4 1/2 XX
Maker: Maltese (Iron) Cross
Years wearing this shoe: 15!
Padding: She tapes her second toe and two last toes with first-aid tape, and wears Bunheads “jelly tips” on her big toes. Occasionally, she’ll use corn pads between her toes for added comfort.
Break-in process: After darning the tips of her shoes, she lays them on the floor and steps on the boxes to flatten them.

Then she rips out the insole lining and gently bends the shank back and forth to conform to her arch. Finally, she pours one tube of super glue inside each box for extra strength.

Number of pairs she uses: During performance periods, she goes through two to three pairs each weekend.

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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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