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NYCB Gets Real
The company’s reality series premieres this fall.
Ballet West tested the waters with “Breaking Pointe,” and now New York City Ballet is also venturing into reality programming. Executive produced and co-developed by Sarah Jessica Parker, “city.ballet” will air beginning this fall on AOL On, the internet company’s online video platform.

Parker, an NYCB board member and former ballet student, has said that the docu-series won’t revolve around backstage drama. Instead, it aims to reveal the day-to-day lives of members of a major ballet company—and to introduce its stars to audiences outside the dance world.

50 Times Three

Boston Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet are very different, but all three companies arrive at the same milestone this fall: They’re celebrating their 50th anniversary seasons.

Five years ago, after suffering from budget cuts and being pushed out of its longtime home, the Wang Theatre, Boston Ballet was forced to cut its ranks by nearly 20 percent, dropping to 41 dancers from 50. Today, the company has more than recovered—it’s grown. “By the 2015–16 season, we will stabilize the company size at 58 dancers in the main company,” says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. He also hopes to “tour strategically” in the coming years. “We don’t want to tour for touring’s sake, but it will be an essential part of Boston Ballet.”

Pennsylvania Ballet recently entered a new chapter with the opening of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. “We’ve been without an affiliated school for many years now, so this is a huge step for us,” says artistic director Roy Kaiser. His goal is to groom a new generation of homegrown PAB dancers. “I can see already in students 8, 9, 10 years old the seeds of our aesthetic,” he says. “We have a diversified rep that places a lot of different demands on the dancers, so our goal in the school is to create a unified group that’s prepared for it. I think it will take the company to a new level.”

Cincinnati Ballet has been experimenting with innovative new programming in recent years, including the company’s collaboration with rocker (and former Cincinnati resident) Peter Frampton last spring. Artistic director Victoria Morgan—one of the few female directors of American ballet companies—says her plans for CB’s future are focused on the Cincinnati community. “In my dream, the company is fully integrated into it,” she says, “through not only our performances, but also our academy and outreach programs.”

The Joyce’s Unconventional Ballet Festival

August is a monthlong ballet celebration at NYC’s Joyce Theater. The Ballet v6.0 festival highlights exciting small troupes working outside the traditional ballet company format—a welcome idea in a world that’s often preoccupied with big-name organizations. Philadelphia’s BalletX, Houston’s Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, San Francisco Bay Area’s Company C Contemporary Ballet, Seattle’s Whim W’Him, New York’s BalletCollective and Jessica Lang Dance will all perform at The Joyce over the course of the month.

Vail Celebrates 25 Years
The Vail International Dance Festival hits the quarter-century mark this year. Its anniversary lineup includes the always star-studded International Evenings of Dance in August, featuring Vail veterans like American Ballet Theatre’s Herman Cornejo and Royal Ballet soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell, as well as a few new faces—notably ballet bad boy Sergei Polunin.

Natalia Osipova Heads to The Royal

International superstar Natalia Osipova begins her new gig as a principal at The Royal Ballet this fall, and her first partner as an official member of the company will be the ever-charismatic Carlos Acosta. The high-wattage pair will create sparks together in Romeo and Juliet.

Melissa Hough’s Premiere
We know first soloist Melissa Hough as one of Houston Ballet’s most exciting dancers—and a former Pointe cover star. But recently, Hough has been venturing into the world of choreography. And she’s had enough success that HB’s “Four Premieres” program this September will showcase her work alongside ballets by established choreographers James Kudelka and Christopher Bruce (as well as up-and-coming former HB dancer Garrett Smith).

Hough’s new piece, set to music by Gabriel Prokofiev, will be her third for the company. “Because I know all the dancers so well, I enjoy using them in a way that makes them a little uncomfortable,” she says. “Somebody who always does upbeat parts—why not give them a languid pas de deux? I want to stretch people.”

Hough says her works are always “a fusion of styles,” thanks in part to the years she spent competing in jazz and contemporary routines as a student. “Every year, we’d learn a ton of pieces for competitions, all those group numbers,” she says. “It was like doing 15 world premieres, even though each was only three minutes long. Being part of all those creations gave me a certain understanding of how to make things work choreographically—even basic stuff, like how to get dancers from one place to another onstage. It’s a different perspective.”

What else makes a Hough ballet a Hough ballet? Sensuality. “I always want there to be a little sex appeal,” she says. “I think it’s freeing for dancers.”

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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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