Choreography Camp

When Brittain Jarrett Jackson arrived for his first summer at the Northwest Professional Dance Project in Portland, Oregon, he was 21 years old and, he admits, “a little set in my ways in terms of how I wanted to dance and who I wanted to dance with.” Then, over the next three weeks, he not only attended technique classes and workshops but also participated in the development of a brand-new work in which he performed during NWPDP’s final showing. The experience was transformative.

“Once I allowed myself to be engulfed and to appreciate my surroundings,” Jackson says, “everything turned around and I started seeing things clearly. When I started becoming aware of my body and allowing myself to be a vessel, everything came into focus.”

He went on to apprentice with Stephen Petronio and perform with Buglisi/Foreman Dance, now Buglisi Dance Theatre. He is now a member of Mexican choreographer Tania Perez-Salas’s company. During the summer, he performs with the NWPDP company, Dance Moves, made up of dancers who have attended the program and reconvene to offer performances, master classes and outreach programs for disadvantaged and at-risk youth.

For dancers looking to further their professional and artistic growth, summer workshops like NWPDP offer the best possible opportunity to experience the creative process firsthand while making connections with potential employers. At the same time, choreographers looking to explore new work and new ideas enjoy the luxury of having time, space and a group of talented dancers at their disposal.

“It’s a win-win-win scenario,” says Sarah Slipper, artistic director of NWPDP. Dancers love the challenge of working with a range of choreographers in a friendly environment and, says Slipper, “the choreographers love it because they’re able to do anything they want with an incredible group of extraordinary movers, and the directors get to see new talent both choreographically and dancer-wise.”

Last summer, the project hosted 24 professional and preprofessional dancers, ages 16 to 25, and nearly as many choreographers and artistic directors, including Donald McKayle, Alonzo King, Robert Moses and John Alleyne. Kelly Ann Barton, another member of Dance Moves, met Donald Byrd at the conference in 2004, when she was 15, and worked with him again when they both returned the next summer. She’s now in her second season with Byrd’s company, Spectrum Dance Theater.

“It’s a great way for dancers to be seen by choreographers, as opposed to going to an open cattle call audition,” says Barton. “It provides such an intimate setting to work closely with them. All this choreography is being created on you, and you have the rare opportunity to experience how they work and to be part of the creative process.”

While 19 NWPDP alumni have secured contracts with companies, Slipper says that even if they don’t get scooped up right away, dancers absorb information that will make them especially prized by choreographers—and if they’re already in a company, they can return after the summer with a new understanding of their art.

As with NWPDP, the young dancers who go to Regional Dance America’s Craft of Choreography Conference are at a summer intensive centered on developing choreography. CCC also includes evening seminars and daily classes in ballet, modern, jazz and pointe. This past summer, 62 dancers ages 13 and up attended the program and five of these dancers took advantage of a new “student choreographer” option that allowed them to participate in a two-hour composition class each morning with the program’s director of choreography and director of music.

At the National Choreographers Initiative, based at the University of California, Irvine, 15 dancers are hired each summer to work with four established choreographers, who are chosen from 25 to 30 applicants each year. Alumni include James Sewell, Peter Pucci and Luca Veggetti. NCI’s goal is to serve as a laboratory in which choreographers can be free to play and explore ideas with the pressure of deadlines, but it can be an exceptional learning opportunity for dancers as well.

“It’s such an invaluable experience,” says Valerie Tellmann, 26, an NCI dancer who is a member of the Richmond Ballet. “It made me more sensitive to the details, the accents and the physical nuances the choreographers were asking for—the direction of the hand, the tilt of the head. Originally, when I started dancing professionally, I never picked up on stuff like that.”

Nashville Ballet’s Eddie Mikrut, another NCI regular, agrees, “Each summer you go in with a blank slate. When you’re with a company for a while, it’s very easy to get pigeonholed in a certain type of movement, but every time you go in with a new choreographer seeing you for the first time, they can draw on a different aspect of your ability. It’s like, ‘What kind of dancer am I going to be this time?’”

Choreographers who attend these programs have the time and space to ask themselves a similar question. “It’s an opportunity to step out from the real world of schedules and rehearsals and running a company and to enter a studio without preconceptions. You know what you’re creating is for yourself, but not in a selfish way,” says Graham Lustig, artistic director of American Repertory Ballet, who was one of NCI’s chosen four in 2006. “You’re not here to sell a ballet, you’re exploring an idea. It’s very unique in the world of ballet to be provided with such a luxury.”

Gina Patterson, a dancer with Ballet Austin who is pursuing a career in choreography and now has two projects in the offing as a result of the contacts she made at NCI in 2006, says the camaraderie among the choreographers was not only supportive and inspiring but also made it possible to network.

NCI founder and director Molly Lynch began the program in 2004 after resigning as artistic director of Ballet Pacifica, where she had established the Pacifica Choreographic Project. Lynch calls NCI “research and development for ballet. Someone doesn’t just come out being a fabulous choreographer.” She adds, “You’ve got to have the opportunity to work. Any choreographer, even if they’re well-established, needs that time to be able to work without the pressures of a commission.” The two-week program ends with an informal public showing and choreographers decide how much or how little of their work they’re ready to reveal.

So far, 11 ballets conceived at the workshop have gone on to be produced and performed, including Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Jamboree, choreographed to the music of the Red Clay Ramblers and commissioned by Carolina Ballet’s Robert Weiss. “I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had that development time in Molly’s program,” says Taylor-Corbett, who spent a good part of her time at the conference narrowing down her music choices. “If I had taken the same time to do that in a production schedule, half of my time would have been gone.”

Choreographers at all levels—established, emerging and nascent—are nurtured by the Craft of Choreography Conference, which relocates every few years in an effort to be accessible to as many people as possible. The grandfather of the group, CCC was started in 1961 as a way to help the directors of Regional Dance America’s member companies become better choreographers.

“It was clear right from the beginning that if we wanted the standards to improve, we needed to put a lot of energy into
developing choreographers,” says CCC Executive Director Debra Rogo.

Every summer five emerging choreographers (often members of RDA companies) and five “Project Tier” choreographers (typically directors of member companies) are invited to the conference on full scholarship, based on performances of their work at the organization’s annual festivals. Another five “guest choreographers,” who are not affiliated with RDA, are chosen via video auditions.

“It was like I had gotten a shot in the arm,” says Amy Moore Morton, director of Tennessee’s Appalachian Ballet Company, who has attended CCC as both an emerging and Project Tier choreographer. “I’m classically trained, but the conference really helps me open my mind and think outside the box.”

While CCC’s Project Tier choreog-raphers work independently, emerging choreographers are given assignments and mentoring, and are required to show work every evening. “One of the main objectives is to push them out of their comfort zone, which makes for a very stressful experience and huge growth,” says Rogo. “It becomes a very tight-knit community because it’s a very safe environment. Oftentimes, in the beginning, they want to produce the same things they’ve been producing at home, but in that nurturing environment, you see them embrace new ideas. It’s amazing to watch the transformation happen for these young choreographers. It never ceases to move me every year.”

Tresca Weinstein is a freelance writer who covers dance, the visual arts, yoga, travel and home design for national and regional publications.

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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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