American Ballet Theatre principals Christine Shevchenko and Aran Bell in the pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet

Courtesy Live Arts Global

How ABT's Christine Shevchenko Put Together a Virtual Gala in Just 2 Months

While the coronavirus pandemic has brought live performances to a halt worldwide, American Ballet Theatre principal Christine Shevchenko has used the gap in her schedule to realize another dream—and help her colleagues at the same time. Shevchenko teamed up with former ABT corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick and choreographer Joanna DeFelice to found Live Arts Global, a platform to view dance at no cost and bring in new audiences. Their first project: A Night at the Ballet, which safely unites some of the world's most celebrated dancers for a virtual gala performance.

"Dance can be very healing, especially in troubling and difficult times like this," Shevchenko says ahead of the gala, streaming on YouTube from December 17 to 20. "We wanted to bring some happiness to everyone's home, while also providing a way for dancers and crew to work again in a COVID-safe environment." The hour-long performance, sponsored by Bloch, includes excerpts from Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker, and features ABT's Calvin Royal III, San Francisco Ballet's Julian MacKay and Dance Theatre of Harlem's Crystal Serrano, among others. (Shevchenko will be performing too, of course.)

"We worked our butts off to put this together," Shevchenko says. She laughs as she recalls figuring out logistics, like finding a filming location, hiring dancers and raising money—all while following CDC guidelines. "It was a lot, but the result is definitely worth it," she adds.

Ahead, Shevchenko shares how Live Arts Global put together its first gala in just two months.

How did the idea for A Night at the Ballet come about?

My dream has been to create my own gala eventually. I just never had the time to do it because when we work full-time with ABT, we're insanely busy. I was in a slump because there were no performances or rehearsals because of COVID-19, and I reached a limit where I thought, I want to do something on my own because I'm tired of waiting around for something to happen. I thought this would be a great opportunity to start something that I've been wanting to do for a long time, so I reached out to one of my best friends, Melanie Hamrick, in October.

What were some of the biggest challenges in organizing a virtual gala?

Well, I'm in New York, Joanna is in Florida and Melanie is in Europe, so it was a lot of 9 am FaceTime calls to go through what each person had to do. The most challenging thing was finding a space to film. We really wanted to film in a theater to make it look like a real, onstage performance. We probably spent a month looking, and luckily we found Manhattan Movement & Arts Center—they have a beautiful theater in their basement.

Then, we came up with an insane collaboration of dancers from Mariinsky Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. But, obviously, there was no way the Mariinsky couple could come to New York for filming. We told them the camera angles we needed and what it should look like, and they filmed right on the Mariinsky stage, which is quite incredible. (We are keeping the dancers' identities a surprise)

A white ballerina in a bright red tutu, pink tihgst and pointe shoes and a rose in her hair performs an attitude devant with her right leg and looks towards her partner on her left. Her partner a white male danseur, wears a black bolero jacket, black tights and slippers and  holds her around the waist with his right hand with his left arms up high.

Shevchenko with Julian MacKay in the Grand Pas de Deux from Don Quixote

Courtesy Live Arts Global

What were the rehearsal and filming processes like?

All of the dancers rehearsed on their own, renting studio space in different locations since we can't all work together. I'd been rehearsing with ABT principal Aran Bell for the past two months, but I'm also dancing with Julian MacKay, who is at SFB, so we were only able to rehearse a couple of times before we filmed. Closer to filming, Joanna was able to come to New York and help, and we worked with an amazing crew, MacKay Productions. Then for the filming of the performance, we spaced everyone out so that there were no crossovers. One couple would come in, film, leave, and we would sanitize the dressing rooms and everything before the next couple would come in.

In the future, where do you see Live Arts Global?

We would love to continue with this and have more impact. Eventually, maybe in the spring, I'd like to put together a bigger gala that could take place live.

What are you most looking forward to, post-pandemic?
In the beginning it was quite challenging because nothing was open. I turned my living room into my dance studio, and I did a lot of ballet class there for the first three months. Now, it's a little easier because ABT is doing classes, and other studio space is open to rent. But what I really miss is interacting with my colleagues and the audience. It feels really lonely right now, and it's weird not to be around people every single day. And for a live performance, you feed off of the energy of the audience—I really look forward to live shows.

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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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