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New USA IBC Prizes

 

This year, dancers will vie for six one-year company contracts.

 

The stakes will be higher than ever at the USA International Ballet Competition this June. While entrants in the prestigious contest, held every four years in Jackson, MS, have traditionally competed for medals, cash awards and scholarships, this year they could also walk away with a one-year contract at Ballet San Jose, Columbia City Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Nashville Ballet or The Washington Ballet.

 

“For many of these young dancers, a company contract is the best prize of all—it’s the start of a career,” says Sue Lobrano, executive director of USA IBC. Two or three companies offered contract prizes at the 2002 and 2006 competitions, Lobrano says, but this is the first time such a large number have signed on. “The six companies cover a huge range, geographically and stylistically,” Lobrano says. “That’s wonderful, because it means they’ll all be looking for different types of dancers.”

 

Perhaps thanks to the new prizes, the USA IBC has seen a remarkable jump in applications. “It almost scared us!” Lobrano says. “Normally we get between 250 and 290 applications for about 100 spots; this year we had 357. But that just means that the quality of the competitors will be very high.” —Margaret Fuhrer

 

 

Competitors to Watch

 

Keep an eye on ABT apprentice Meaghan Hinkis, who impressed the judges at the 2009 Helsinki International Ballet Competition—where she took home the bronze—with her luxurious extensions and clean, easy pirouettes. San Francisco Ballet corps member Madison Keesler looks at home in classical and contemporary work, and with two years of professional experience under her belt (the first at Hamburg Ballet), she’s no stranger to the pressures of the stage. And Orlando Ballet II dancer Simon Wexler, competing in the junior division, is already a gallant, assured partner with a graceful, unaffected classical line. —MF

 

 

Wheeldon Out at Morphoses

 

Last February, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company jolted the dance world when choreographer Christopher Wheeldon resigned from his role with the company just three years after it was founded.

 

The blizzard of conflicting press releases and interviews took a week or so to subside. Morphoses Executive Director Lourdes Lopez said Wheeldon’s inability to work the company into his increasingly busy schedule had created difficulties in hiring dancers, rehearsing ballets and booking venues. In all of 2010, Lopez said Wheeldon could devote only 10 weeks to such matters.

Wheeldon, who said he had set aside 17 weeks for Morphoses this year, insisted that what led to his departure was the continuing problem of assembling a genuine company: several full-time dancers whose bodies and technique he knew so well he could begin mentally “choreographing” on them weeks in advance. Instead, he needed to recruit new dancers for each appearance to supplement a small cadre of colleagues who were between seasons at The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet. Although this stopgap arrangement put NYCB superballerinas Wendy Whelan and Maria Kowroski and freelancer Edwaard Liang at his disposal, it was unsatisfactory for a long haul. Wheeldon says, “I was planning to step down at the end of the year anyway; the collapse of an engagement in Paris during time I’d set aside for the company precipitated my immediate departure.”

 

Lopez insists that Morphoses has the wherewithal to continue performing without Wheeldon’s participation. It ended 2009 with $1.3 million in the bank and a net profit of $545,000, can offer salaries and benefits to 8 to 10 dancers and has a repertoire of ballets on tap. Lopez says the current plan is to continue under a series of  “curators” from various artistic disciplines—music, visual art, even film—with each artist serving as resident expert for a season.

 

Wheeldon’s schedule remains full. After attending San Francisco Ballet’s premiere of his Ghosts in February, he began preliminary work for The Royal Ballet’s two-act Alice in Wonderland, scheduled for 2011, and started choreographing his latest premiere for NYCB, set to Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia. —Harris Green

Ballet Arizona at Ballet Across America

 

For Ballet Arizona Artistic Director Ib Andersen, the second of the Kennedy Center’s biennial Ballet Across America festivals is a milestone in his 26-year-old troupe’s history. As one of nine invited companies, Ballet Arizona will make its Washington, D.C. debut when they perform Andersen’s newest work, Diversions, three times during the June festival.

 

In making his new ballet, unveiled during Ballet Arizona’s late March season, Andersen had Washington very much in mind. “Why perform something that people already know?” says Andersen, now in his tenth season in Phoenix. “This is a creative company.” Set to an eminently danceable piece by British composer Benjamin Britten, Diversions is a non-narrative work for 10 men and 10 women. “It will definitely show off the company,” promises Andersen.

 

Like many regional troupes, Ballet Arizona has few touring opportunities. Ballet Across America is thus a rare chance to be seen, as Andersen says, “by different eyes.” The lack of touring also means companies pursue their work in relative isolation. Andersen says the festival is a chance for companies to measure themselves against other troupes and gain perspective.

 

Andersen thinks festival attendees will be impressed by the high level of dancing among all participants. “When I came to America,” says Andersen, “the  dancing outside the big companies was not very good. Nowadays the difference is not so large.”

 

Ballet Memphis, North Carolina Dance Theatre and Tulsa Ballet will also make their D.C. debuts at Ballet Across America; Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Houston Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will perform as well. —Michael Crabb

 

 

ABT Honors a Ballet Legend

 

American Ballet Theatre will pay tribute to Alicia Alonso, who turns 90 this year, during its spring season at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House. The company will celebrate her legacy at a special performance of Don Quixote on June 3, with a different pair of principal dancers performing in each of its three acts.

 

The Cuban-born Alonso had a long association with ABT. A high point of her ABT career came in 1947, when George Balanchine made his classic Theme and Variations on her and her frequent partner Igor Youskevitch. Alonso also created major roles in the company’s premieres of Antony Tudor’s Undertow (1945) and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend (1948).

 

ABT principal Paloma Herrera, who was 8 years old when she saw Alonso’s company perform in Buenos Aires, was later coached by her when Herrera filmed Theme for The George Balanchine Trust. “Alicia was such an inspiration,” she says. “By working directly with the ballerina who created the part, you learn so much that you can’t get from notation.”

 

Cubans’ voracious appetite for ballet is credited to Alonso. The National Ballet of Cuba, which she directs, grew out of the companies and schools she founded there. “When I danced in Havana with Jose Manuel Carreño, the enthusiasm of the audience was incredible!” Herrera recalls. “You are inspired by such a house.”

 

The multicast Don Quixote will be a historic tribute and a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Herrera will perform Act I with Marcelo Gomes, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo will dance Act II and Natalia Osipova and Carreño will conclude the evening in Act III. —Harris Green

 

Pointe Style Watch: Functional Sophistication

 

It’s balmy outside, but dance studios are often over air-conditioned. Fight the chill with Harmonie’s elegant warm-ups. The dolman-sleeve shrug and drawstring pants are light enough for summer, but cozy enough to keep you limber. And they’re made of 100 percent organic cotton—so they’re good for the environment and your muscles.  We're giving them away at pointemagazine.com!  —MF

 

Ballet All Over:  Emily Blunt in Ballerina Mode

 

Emily Blunt (of The Devil Wears Prada and Sunshine Cleaning) is the latest Hollywood starlet to don pointe shoes onscreen. In the upcoming thriller The Adjustment Bureau, tentatively scheduled for a July 30 release, Blunt plays a dancer with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Since she has no ballet training, Blunt worked with Cedar Lake for months to prepare for the movie, which also stars Matt Damon. Several scenes were shot at the dance company’s studios in New York City—and several real-life Cedar Lake dancers make cameo appearances onscreen! Look for The Adjustment Bureau in theaters soon. — MF

 

Check for updates about The Adjustment Bureau at pointemagazine.com and on Twitter (@Pointe_Magazine)! 

 

 

Pointe Shoe Profile

San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan

Brand: Freed of London
Size: 5 1?2
Maker: Maltese Cross (and others, sometimes)
Years wearing this shoe: 14
Padding: Lambswool and paper towels
Break-in process: She sews on ribbons, cuts the shank at her arch and uses alcohol or water to soften the shank and box.
Number of pairs she uses: During performance weeks, she usually goes through about four pairs. But if she’s dancing a full-length like Swan Lake, it can be many more!

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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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