Call Board

An American Sampler
This June, the third Ballet Across America will bring nine regional ballet companies to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Highlights of the event’s three programs include the Kennedy Center debut of Richmond Ballet and a performance of Sir Frederick Ashton’s seldom seen Les Patineurs by Sarasota Ballet.


Ballet All Over
New Cast of “Breaking Pointe”
The popular reality series “Breaking Pointe,” which goes behind the scenes at Ballet West, returns to The CW for its second season on July 29. The cast will feature some new faces: corps member Joshua Whitehead, supplemental artist Silver Barkes and Ballet West II dancers Ian Tanzer and Zachary Prentice. They join original members Christopher Ruud, Ronnie Underwood, Allison DeBona, Rex Tilton, Christiana Bennett and Beckanne Sisk. Pointe followed Sisk during a day’s filming; click here for more.


Malakhov Out, Duato In at Staatsballett
After a decade with a Russian star at the helm, Staatsballett Berlin has looked to Russia again to find its next artistic director. The German company announced earlier this year that Vladimir Malakhov is set to leave in 2014, and will be replaced by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, currently the artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet.

A former American Ballet Theatre star, Malakhov oversaw the difficult merging of Berlin’s three state ballet companies into one larger ensemble upon his arrival in 2004. He built the new company’s repertoire around a mix of full-length ballets, including reconstructions such as La Péri and La Esmeralda, and contemporary fare by Angelin Preljocaj, Boris Eifman and Mauro Bigonzetti. The failure to renew his contract follows recent negative press in Berlin and the departure of Malakhov’s top star, Polina Semionova, who joined ABT last fall.

The appointment of Duato, who leaves the Mikhailovsky after less than three years, was met with mixed reactions in Berlin. Duato is known for his contemporary choreography, and by hiring him Staatsballett signals a shift in the direction of its repertoire. Under the terms of his five-year contract, Duato will set one of his ballets each season and add work by other modern choreographers, but he has stated in the German press that he also wants to build on the classics Malakhov maintained, adding that his predecessor is leaving “very big shoes to fill.” Duato will also remain the Mikhailovsky’s resident choreographer, and plans to foster cooperation between St. Petersburg and Berlin with co-productions and joint guest appearances: “I’m not going to part with Russia or with my dancers.”

Malakhov, who didn’t give up dancing during his directorship, hasn’t yet announced his plans for the future. “It is all still very fresh to me,” he said, “but I am looking forward to my last season in Berlin.” He will bid the company farewell in June 2014 with two final performances, in Caravaggio and Tschaikowsky. —Laura Cappelle


NYCB Ballerinas Branch Out
Wendy Whelan’s “Restless Creature”
When New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan began work on “Restless Creature”—a program of original works created collaboratively with contemporary choreographers Brian Brooks, Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish and Alejandro Cerrudo—her goal, she says, was “to find a new side of myself that wasn’t necessarily a ballet version of me.” But even a ballerina as renowned for her curiosity as Whelan can be taken by surprise. Working in the studio with Brooks, for instance, he asked her to step out of her pointe shoes. “It was liberating,” she says. “It made a tremendous difference in how I connected with the floor.”

Whelan, honorary co-chair of Jacob’s Pillow’s opening gala on June 15, will debut her new project at the festival on August 14. In expanding her forays into the contemporary idiom, she follows the example of Mikhail Baryshnikov. He, after all, reinvented himself as a champion of modern dance after performing what seemed like every ballet role known to man. “He’s been the model for me,” Whelan says. “He opened that door and I wondered, Why aren’t more people following him through it?” But given that Whelan is the restless creature at the heart of this project, there’s little doubt the 46-year-old Kentucky native would have found this path even if Baryshnikov hadn’t paved it first. “If I stop learning, my heart sags,” she says.

Before getting into the studio, Whelan had only met two of the choreographers; she knew the others by reputation. But all of them fit with her vision for “Restless Creature” as a search for “distinctive voices.” She’s also been blogging throughout the rehearsal period (wendywhelanproject2013.blogspot.com). “As the process has gone on, it’s become a diary for me,” she says. “When I reread it, it reinforces that idea of exploration.” —Cathy Harding

Sara Mearns with the New York Philharmonic

New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns, a longtime fan of the New York Philharmonic, can often be found backstage at the orchestra’s concerts. After a performance one night in 2011, she met Doug Fitch, a previous director and designer of Philharmonic presentations. “He mentioned that he needed a dancer for an upcoming production,” Mearns says. “I was like: I’m right here! Pick me!”

Before long, Mearns was signed on for the Philharmonic’s 2012–13 season finale, a reimagining of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and The Fairy’s Kiss (better known to NYCB audiences as Le Baiser de la Fée) led by Fitch, music director Alan Gilbert and choreographer Karole Armitage. The show runs June 27 to 29 at Lincoln Center.

Mearns was especially excited to work for the first time with Armitage. “Her stuff is very cool and outside of the box,” Mearns says, “but at the same time, she came out of the School of American Ballet, so she knows how we move.”

The production is elaborate, involving film and puppetry. “It’s like a huge Broadway show—dealing with all those components requires split-second timing,” Mearns says. “There’s dancing from start to finish, and a lot of work with the puppeteers, and I’m in the film footage, too.” Other performers include fellow NYCB principal Amar Ramasar and Armitage Gone! Dance’s Abbey Roesner.

“I think dance is about the music first,” Mearns says. “That’s why this feels like such a natural collaboration.” —Margaret Fuhrer

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Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

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Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

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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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