Call Board

Royal Danish Ballet Tackles Twelfth Night
Nikolaj Hübbe is setting the Shakespearean classic on some of the company’s youngest dancers.

Shakespeare seems to be on choreographers’ minds these days. In addition to Christopher Wheeldon’s new Winter’s Tale for The Royal Ballet (p. 39) and American Ballet Theatre’s reprise of Alexei Ratmansky’s recent Tempest (p. 42), this spring will also see the premiere of Royal Danish Ballet director Nikolaj Hübbe’s take on the Bard’s Twelfth Night.

But it’s not Hübbe?’s vision alone. Created for the company’s apprentices and youngest dancers, it’s also a collaborative work, featuring the up-and-coming dancers’ insights and input. “I think it’s important that emerging artists get to be part of a creative process, a work that’s done on and with them,” Hübbe says. “We sat the kids down—they’re all very green—and had them read the play. Afterward we had a powwow where we asked them, ‘What do you think of Viola? Or Olivia?’ And we went from there, so that their thoughts became a part of the characterizations.”

Hübbe felt Twelfth Night’s cross-dressing characters were good fits for dancers just beginning to figure out their own identities. “In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare tells us, ‘I’m not what I seem, and nothing on the surface is what it seems,’ ” he says. “Women become men, men become women. Our cast for this ballet is all young people just coming out of puberty, questioning, ‘Who am I? What is my sexuality, and where do I fit in?’ They have a special relationship to this story.” —Margaret Fuhrer



Bolshoi Bouncing Back?

Will 2014 be a year of renewal for the Bolshoi Ballet? As the company prepares to visit Washington, DC, with Giselle (May 20–25), its artists are certainly hoping to put the macabre saga of the past year behind them. Since the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin, which prompted a guilty verdict for dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko and two accomplices in December, the turmoil and infighting have led to the departure of principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze and general director Anatoly Iksanov.

Filin went back to Moscow last fall, and while he must still make regular trips to Germany to continue his complex eye treatment, he says he has “fully returned” to his duties as artistic director. He believes the change of personnel has been positive for the company: “Everything is going the way it was before,” he told Pointe. “Without some of the people who have left, we have a chance to re-create a good creative atmosphere within the theater.”

Former Bolshoi ballerina Galina Stepanenko, appointed interim director after the attack, has stayed on as ballet manager to help him. In Filin’s absence, the Bolshoi also re-created an artistic council reminiscent of the one in place in Soviet times, which was expanded by Filin in January to include all 21 coaches on the roster, as well as the directors. A new labor contract is in the works to settle the disputes surrounding pay and working conditions.

Meanwhile, Filin is keen to focus on artistic matters again. David Hallberg, who was hired by Filin in 2011, will headline the Washington tour alongside Svetlana Zakharova, Ekaterina Krysanova, Ruslan Skvortsov and Artem Ovcharenko. The Bolshoi will also be in New York in July with Swan Lake, Spartacus and Don Quixote. Back home, the company is rehearsing a new version of The Taming of the Shrew by Jean-Christophe Maillot, the first of two creations to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Behind the scenes, new general director Vladimir Urin is also working to put together a team that will bring more positive attention to the Bolshoi. “Last year was a nonstop attack, and we could only react to it,” says Filin. “When I joined as artistic director, I always said that we needed fewer words and more action. We’re all devoted to the Bolshoi, and the only goal before us is to get artistic results.” —Laura Cappelle



Ballet All Over

Pennsylvania Ballet on PBS
A national television broadcast isn’t a bad way to celebrate a 50th birthday. “Pennsylvania Ballet at 50,” featuring a special anniversary performance by PAB and interviews with founder Barbara Weisberger and director Roy Kaiser, will air on PBS May 2 at 9:00 pm.

Corps member Alexandra Hughes has a featured role in the broadcast, dancing the pas de deux from Margo Sappington’s Under the Sun—a company classic since its premiere in 1976—with principal Ian Hussey. “It’s a great work for this anniversary program because of its history with PAB,” says Hughes, who joined the troupe two seasons ago. “It was popular in the seventies, and it’s still popular today because of its contemporary, acrobatic quality. I love that this pas de deux lets me go back to the company’s roots—it makes me feel like I’m officially part of its legacy.”

Bourne’s Vampires in Your Living Room
The bloodthirsty fairies of Matthew Bourne’s gothic Sleeping Beauty caused quite a stir during the show’s U.S. tour last year. Now Bourne’s shadowy fairy tale will reach an even wider audience: PBS is airing the ballet as part of its Great Performances series on Friday, April 25. Check local listings for times.

Tanaquil Le Clercq’s Tragic Beauty
Witty, lithe Tanaquil Le Clercq was Balanchine’s muse in the 1950s, before she contracted polio at age 27. Though the disease left her paralyzed from the waist down, Le Clercq, who was Balanchine’s fourth wife, remained active in the ballet world. The documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq, which includes remarkable footage of Le Clercq, opens nationwide in April. Visit —MF



DTH Returns to NYC
After its triumphant New York season last year, Dance Theatre of Harlem returns to Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater in April—the eighth stop on its 13-city 2014 tour. New York premieres include Petipa’s Pas de Dix, originally staged as part of Raymonda; Ulysses Dove’s elegiac Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven; and Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis’ past-carry-forward, an examination of the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance. —MF



Milwaukee’s Twisted Fairy Tale
Milwaukee Ballet director Michael Pink’s ballets can always be counted on to bring the drama. Perhaps a cousin of his ever-popular Dracula, Pink’s latest full-length for the company, Mirror Mirror, is a dark retelling of the Snow White story. Opening in May, the work features a new score by Philip Feeney and costumes inspired by the fantastical fashions of Alexander McQueen. —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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