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Cuban Panache Comes To DC

 

Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to the Kennedy Center.

 

By Abi Stafford

 

This May, Ballet Nacional de Cuba will perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, for the first time in 10 years. New York City Ballet principal
Abi Stafford, who danced in Havana at the 22nd International Ballet Festival last fall, tells us what we can expect from Alicia Alonso’s world-famous company.

 

At the Kennedy Center, Ballet Nacional de Cuba will perform highlights from Nutcracker, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, as well as a full-length Don Quixote. Be sure to watch for jaw-dropping balances from prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés in Don Q, as well as Yolanda Correa’s emotional, nuanced interpretation of Giselle. Yoel Carreño (brother of American Ballet Theatre’s Jose Manuel Carreño) will dazzle with his sky-high jumps and clean multiple pirouettes. The entire corps has refreshingly unmannered port de bras and performs with a zealous flair. This company has old-fashioned classical roots but still keeps you on the edge of your seat.

 

We think of Cuban dancers as performers of great passion. But when I visited Cuba, I was struck by the fact that their passion is just as evident in class. Usually, I expect professional dancers to take things easy during class, to do just what they need for their own bodies. But in the company class I observed—which looked like it was based in Vaganova technique, very pure—everyone did every exercise full out; there was no “saving it for the show.” The dancers attacked even the simplest of exercises with the same verve they showed onstage.

 

It’s evidence of the deep respect they have for the art form, which Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet School instill in them from the beginning. Their dedication is what allows them to achieve amazing feats in performance. It’s the foundation for the flair.

 

 

Kozlova’s New Competition


Former Bolshoi and New York City Ballet principal Valentina Kozlova is no stranger to ballet competitions: Not only did she participate in them, but she also prepares students from her NYC studio for the competition circuit and is a frequent judge. Still, many were surprised when she announced that she would launch the Boston International Ballet Competition this May. Does the world need another ballet competition?

 

Kozlova believes so. “Often I see dancers who concentrate on technical aspects only,” she says. “The BIBC will be about artistry, not getting a medal and hanging it in your bedroom.”

 

Participants must select variations and/or pas de deux to perform from a carefully culled list that emphasizes versatility. “If you’re a bravura dancer, you can do Solor’s variation first, but the second solo will have to be more lyrical,” Kozlova says. Margo Sappington and Edwaard Liang have also choreographed contemporary solos that the women and men (respectively) will have to learn—from videos posted on the competition’s website. “Everyone learns classical variations from tapes,” Kozlova says. “I want to see if they can learn contemporary pieces that way. It’s the way many companies teach repertoire.”

 

While most competitions are for dancers ages 15–25, Kozlova has also included a student division for 13- and 14-year-olds. “These days, when you’re 13 you’re already very good technically,” she explains. “What’s lacking is the opportunity to perform. When I was training in Russia we performed every six weeks. Here it’s impossible to do that. What does that leave? Competitions.”
—Margaret Fuhrer

 

 

NYCB Sins Again


When New York City Ballet announced it would premiere a new take on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “sung ballet” The Seven Deadly Sins, with choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, some wondered if it would tap Balanchine’s provocative original, first performed in 1933.

 

The answer? Nope. “It couldn’t,” Taylor-Corbett says. “There are photos of Balanchine’s production, but no notation or film.” Taylor-Corbett, whose version debuts in May, has done extensive research, including interviews with Karin von Aroldingen and Allegra Kent, both of whom danced in a Balanchine revival of the ballet. “I wanted to embrace where others had taken it,” she says. “It’s moving my own concept forward.”

 

That concept includes Broadway star Patti LuPone, who will sing the part of Anna I opposite NYCB principal Wendy Whelan as Anna II. “I suggested Patti because she’s the one person in American theater with the gravitas and range for the role,” Taylor-Corbett says. “And this part seemed perfect for a dancer of Wendy’s great intelligence.”

 

Taylor-Corbett says this is an unfortunately fitting time to remount Sins, whose split protagonist, played by both a dancer and a singer, is indicative of the troubled times in which it was conceived. “Today, people are also trying to paint everything blue or red,” she says. “But part of what makes Sins great is that it illustrates life’s repeating cycle.” —MF

 

 

Revealing Bella Arrives In Boston


European audiences, those most familiar with Jirí Kylián’s Bella Figura, are pretty blasé about toplessness. But conservative Bostonians? Not so much, which is why Boston Ballet’s inclusion of the breast-baring Bella on a spring program is raising eyebrows.

 

“We had the option not to participate,” says principal Kathleen Breen Combes. “I’ve never done nudity onstage, so it’ll be nerve-racking. But to get the chance to dance this beautiful work”—BB is the first U.S. company ever to perform Bella—“how could I pass that up? I’m hoping audiences will be swept away by the dance and forget about the nudity.”

 

Combes is perhaps more anxious about the ballet’s technical challenges. Though BB has performed Kylián works for years, Bella is “shockingly complicated,” Combes admits. “The pas de deux basically have no transitions. Everything just has to flow.” —MF

 

 

ABT’s Star-Studded Met Season

 

The schedule for American Ballet Theatre’s Metropolitan Opera House season, which begins this May, reads like a run-down of ballet’s hottest names: There are world premieres by golden boys Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, the U.S. premiere of a work by tabloid darling Benjamin Millepied, and guest appearances by superstars Natalia Osipova, Polina Semionova and Alina Cojocaru. The Met season will also be the first time for New Yorkers to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream (featuring, if you choose the right cast, principal David Hallberg in pointe shoes). —MF

 

 

Alberta Ballet Is “Building A Mystery”

 

Alberta Ballet’s recent collaborations with Joni Mitchell and Elton John were both huge audience hits—and if the formula ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In May, the company will premiere its latest work set to the songs of a Canadian pop icon, this time Sarah McLachlan. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, also the title of one of McLachlan’s most successful albums, will feature hits including “Building a Mystery,” “Ben’s Song” and “Ice Cream.” AB artistic director Jean Grand-Maître will choreograph; costumes by Paul Hardy (whom McLachlan has long admired) and original video projections will help bring the pop star’s songs to life. —MF

 

 

Q&A


Dominic Walsh And Sarasota Ballet: Painting In Pointe Shoes

 

Dominic Walsh is a busy man. In addition to running his own contemporary dance company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, he has been resident choreographer at the more classical Sarasota Ballet for the last two years. In 2009, he combined those worlds in The Trilogy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which had a cast that included dancers from both DWDT and SB. The two troupes will perform together again in one of Walsh’s latest ballets, the multimedia Time Out of Line, which runs April 29–May 1 in Sarasota as part of SB’s 20th anniversary season.

 

Pointe: Why did you decide to do another work involving both DWDT and SB dancers?
Dominic Walsh: There’s a great chemistry between my company and the dancers at SB. And it’s always good to combine resources. There’s strength in numbers.
PT: Is there an idea or story behind Time Out of Line?
DW: I often play with the concept of time, particularly of time being out of the alignment you think it’s in. One way to demonstrate the passage of time is to physically make a mark—to leave a print in the sand, something that says, “I was here at this time and I did this.” Time Out of Line will explore that idea.
PT: How so?
DW: I’m planning to cover sections of the stage in canvas and work with paint. I want the dance to create very specific patterns and markings on the floor. I’m a painter—I used to do a lot of portrait work—so I’ve always been fascinated with that medium.
PT: That sounds like it might be challenging for the more classical SB dancers.
DW: There will actually be a lot of pointework, which I do sometimes with DWDT, but the SB dancers are better versed in it. They’ll be painting in—with!—pointe shoes. —MF

 

 

Hot Ticket Giveaways
San Francisco Ballet’s Program 7 includes the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine, as well as Renato Zanella’s Underskin and Michel Fokine’s classic Petrouchka. We’re giving away two tickets to the 8 pm performance on Saturday, April 16.

 

This May, Ballet Austin premieres a new version of The Magic Flute, set to a condensed version of Mozart’s score, with choreography by Stephen Mills and backdrops that feature innovative shadow puppetry. We’re giving away two tickets to the Friday, May 6, show. —MF

 

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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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