Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Legendary British Ballet Dancer Christine DuBoulay Ellis Passed Away

Christine DuBoulay Ellis, legendary figure in classical ballet, died on Saturday, November 9, of complications from Parkinson's disease. She was 96.

She was one of the last surviving members of the original Sadler's Wells cast of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened at the Royal Opera House, London, in 1946.


Christine was born on June 12, 1923 in Ealing, England, a western suburb of London. Her father, Guy George Houssemayne-DuBoulay was a Royal Air Force pilot of Huguenot descent, and was appointed director of intelligence with the Royal Air Force Delegation and joint chiefs of staff 1941-1945 (awarded the Legion of Merit, one of the highest awards bestowed on a non-American). Her mother was Ruby Violet Emmeline Knox of Dublin, Ireland.

Christine DuBoulay studied ballet at the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, and art and costume design at The Central School of Art in London. As World War II was exploding in 1942, she joined the International Ballet. The company toured extensively throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

Christine was married to the late Richard Ellis, a principal dancer with the Sadler's Wells Ballet (which became the Royal Ballet in 1956). Richard was one of Dame Margot Fonteyn's first dancing partners in The Royal Ballet, and a WWII hero serving in The Royal Navy during the Omaha Beach invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He danced the role of Herr Drosselmeyer in the Ruth Page production of the Chicago Nutcracker for 26 years. While in The Royal Ballet, Richard and Christine performed throughout Europe and two tours of the United States during which they first visited Chicago.

While with The Royal Ballet, under the leadership of Dame Ninette de Valois, Christine DuBoulay performed in 37 ballets (10 of which she was in the original cast): most notably Coppelia, Giselle, Rake's Progress and Hamlet. While in The Royal Ballet, one of Miss DuBoulay's regular partners was the world-renowned dancer/choreographer John Cranko. Other famous colleagues of The Royal Ballet company at that time were Dame Margot Fonteyn, Sir Frederick Ashton, Freddie Franklin, Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann.

Following several US tours with The Royal Ballet, Richard Ellis and Christine DuBoulay decided to come to Chicago where, in 1952, they created the Ellis DuBoulay School of Ballet, which thrived for over 40 years in Chicago. Their syllabus incorporated the elements of the three major schools of ballet: Vaganova, Royal Academy of Dancing and Cecchetti. Over the course of 40 years, they taught thousands of students. Their students were accepted into 31 dance companies throughout the US and Europe, including such prestigious ballet companies as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, Washington Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet and Basel Opera Ballet.

Their student roster was a Who's Who of the classical ballet and musical theater worlds: Michael Bjerknes, Heidi Ellison, Franca Barchiesi, Helene Alexopoulos, Violette Verdy, Eleanor D'Antuono, Ivan Nagy, Bruce Marks, Toni Lander, William Carter, Pattie Obey and such stage artists as Marilu Henner, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Harris and Barbra Streisand.

In 1959, Richard Ellis and Christine DuBoulay established the Illinois Ballet, which premiered at the Anthenaeum Theatre in Chicago (formerly the St. Alphonsus Church Auditorium). They toured their standard classical ballet repertoire throughout Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The Illinois Ballet appeared 21 times on WTTW-Channel 11 broadcasts and won three Emmys. The Illinois Ballet produced 33 works, 20 of which were original choreography for the company. In addition to performing many roles for the Illinois Ballet, Christine DuBoulay Ellis created over 300 costumes.

In Christine DuBoulay Ellis's book, "A Leap Across the Atlantic: The Memoirs of Two Ballet Dancers," she reflected, "We just hope that over the years we have given some of them [our students] a love of ballet, its grace, beauty of line, awareness of posture, strength and discipline—all of which could be of help towards their goal in life, whether they chose to be professional dancers or not."

Always passionate about the importance of the history of the art form of classical ballet, "Mrs. E" always encouraged her students to study the history of the legendary dancers and choreographers. She was adamant that her students read about the art they were studying. Having first met Robert Joffrey in 1955, and a dear friend of Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, when The Joffrey Ballet relocated into its new headquarters to The Joffrey Tower in the Loop, it was Christine DuBoulay Ellis who established the Joffrey Ballet Library.

Reflecting on the news of Christine DuBoulay Ellis's passing, Ashley Wheater stated: "Christine was an artist who personified grace and integrity. She believed in the power of art to enrich our spirits and touched so many lives in the process. We will forever be grateful to her for her many contributions to our Company and our art form. Her example will live on in our hearts forever."

In addition to her illustrious dancing career, Christine was an accomplished watercolorist and exhibited her work both in Michigan and Illinois. She was also a devoted Cubs fan with a longtime crush on Ryne Sandberg.

A memorial service celebrating Christine's life will be held on December 4, 2019, beginning at 3:00 p.m. at The Joffrey Ballet Tower, 10 East Randolph Street, Chicago, Illinois 60601.

In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to the Christine DuBoulay Ellis Scholarship Fund at The Joffrey Ballet.

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"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.

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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."

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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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