Jillian Vanstone and Dylan Tedaldi in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Photo by Bruce Zinger, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

Story Ballets for the 21st Century: What Are the Secret Ingredients of Today's Successful Narrative Works?

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Pointe.

In the Prologue to Christopher Wheeldon's recent ballet The Winter's Tale, two boys, princely playmates who one day will become kings, are joined onstage by two women veiled in black. They stand, one beside each child, mysterious, disquieting. They hint at the power that women in the ballet will have over men's imaginations as objects of fierce passions or idealized love. In a brief, evocative tableau, the choreographer foreshadows the darker themes of Shakespeare's play, the ballet's source, and their joyful resolution, distilling in a brief passage the story's emotional arc.

Choreographing story ballets that will appeal to contemporary audiences presents unique challenges even for experienced dancemakers. A too-literal approach or too-traditional staging can seem quaint or flat. And what makes a suitable narrative for those coming of age in a digital era, where there are no strictures on what can be searched, seen and shared? How can a story ballet hold audiences' attention? If mere distraction becomes the goal, how can a ballet achieve the resonance that will give it continued life?

Zachary Kapeluck in "Sunset, o639 Hours." Photo by Alexander Izilaev, Courtesy BalletX.

Many current choreographers nevertheless have made narrative a component of their work, though not all have been critically successful. Even Wayne McGregor, celebrated for his form-breaking abstract experiments, recently choreographed Raven Girl, a disturbing fable, and Woolf Works, a three-act exploration of several Virginia Woolf novels for The Royal Ballet. Liam Scarlett, an associate choreographer with The Royal, has created numerous narrative one-acts for the company, including the 1950s-era The Age of Anxiety. Alexei Ratmansky has created his own distinct versions of classics like The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote, and reimagined several staples of the Soviet repertoire, like The Little Humpback Horse. And perhaps more than any other, Wheeldon has staked his claim to the contemporary story ballet with his full-length Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Cinderella and now The Winter's Tale.

“The art of storytelling is timeless," says Wheeldon. “We lose ourselves in books, movies, theater, music. I think that an evening of abstract dance can be quite intimidating for new audiences. A story ballet gives them an escape into a world of characters and emotion."

That emotional tug can pull audiences in, at least initially. “It's human nature to want our feelings about life represented on the stage," says Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, which co-produced Winter's Tale with The Royal Ballet. “We can relate even if the stories are told in a different time or a different medium."

Kain feels her core audience will go to new story ballets, but with certain expectations. "There is a public for Swan Lake and The Nutcracker," she says. "These are not the people who come all year. If we are going to do story ballets for today's audiences, we need them to look extraordinary. It comes at a cost." The sheer expense of mounting a three-act ballet does not present the only challenge. "Once audiences see what can be done with lighting and projections, they love it," she says. "And young people expect it—they would not accept an old-fashioned approach."

Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor's "Raven Girl." Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.

Wheeldon agrees. “Design and the use of technology are important tools in storytelling," he says. He praises “the well-integrated use of projection," a signature of his Alice and Winter's Tale, but notes that a ballet's action cannot be separated from the choreography. Wheeldon's solo in Winter's Tale for Hermione, the queen wrongfully accused by her jealous husband of adultery, conveys both her despair and her dignity. No stage magic, however expressive, could portray her anguish better than the vocabulary of movement. Nevertheless, the ballet's full-scale boat chase—with two onstage ships tossed upon a simulated ocean—remains one of Wheeldon's favorite moments: “Eye candy isn't such a bad thing."

However, choreographer Matthew Neenan, who recently created Sunset, o639 Hours—a semi-abstract ballet that examines a 1930s airplane crash near New Zealand—for BalletX, cautions against relying on technological wizardry. “If it's done well, multimedia can be revolutionary," he says. “But it has to make sense—it must have a strong 'Why.' When it doesn't, it's not worth it." Sunset, o639 Hours used a created soundscape featuring New Zealand birdsong, for instance, in a scene where the dancers became birds. But to portray the airplane at the story's heart, the artists themselves became propellers, wings and gears.

Since staging and technology alone cannot guarantee a new story ballet's appeal, perhaps choreographers must look back to tap the narrative power that has given ballets like Giselle and Swan Lake their place in the repertoire. "A ballet needs a good libretto," says Robert Greskovic, who covers dance for The Wall Street Journal. In the 19th century, a libretto described settings and a detailed narrative. "In the old days, that was where you started," says Greskovic, who notes that when the great classical choreographers came of age in the 1800s, the librettist had a more prominent role than the dancemaker. "Audiences used to ask, 'Who wrote the ballet?' People knew what the next new ballet was by reading it."

Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer in "The Winter's Tale." Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC.

Today's ballet librettos run the gamut from adaptations of classic literature to original material, like Sunset, o639 Hours. Ratmansky has tapped existing librettos, like Little Humpback Horse, but, as Greskovic notes, he gave it “great snap and pizzazz," putting his own stamp on it. Notably in Ratmansky's Nutcracker, the choreographer tweaked the traditional libretto, creating a new character, a mischievous mouse, to start the ballet on a comic note—and adding other elements to clearly signal when the narrative moved into the realm of Clara's imagination.

The ingredients of a successful contemporary libretto, however, are harder to pin down. “The biggest challenge today is getting the right story to tell through dance," says Royal Ballet principal Sarah Lamb. She cites McGregor's collaboration with graphic novelist Audrey Niffenegger on Raven Girl. “The Raven Girl is half-human, half-bird," explains Lamb, who danced the title role. “She's born without wings and her absolute obsession is to fly. The ballet deals with the issue of being born into what one feels is the wrong body." Though the evocative staging used projections, she feels its power lay in its emotional content.

Stories, Lamb continues, are what help people better understand life. “It's reassuring to have a clear narrative arc when real life is unpredictable and unknown," she says. And how can choreographers tap that? “The choreographer can't just be assigned—'Give me a story ballet,' " says Greskovic. “The impetus must come from the dancemaker: 'I want to create this narrative,' and he or she must believe in it."

Perhaps to create successful narratives, choreographers now must look to ballet's storytelling tradition and, as Greskovic notes, make their own investment in a given story. “I'm trying to read more novels that I think could make a good ballet," says Neenan, “to find my own narratives. It's important as choreographers for us to do our own research. It's good for anyone's craft, before you attack a story, to just think about it, to take it in and do your homework."

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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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