Meet the 2020 Dance Magazine Award Honorees

Since 1954, Dance Magazine has celebrated the living legends among us with the Dance Magazine Awards. This year, in light of deep reflections on racial equity inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the selection committee decided to take a close look at exactly who the magazine has honored over the past seven decades. Unsurprisingly, the list is overwhelmingly white. Although it's grown more diverse in recent years, many brilliant artists of color have been left out for far too long.

So for 2020, in order to reckon with and take a step toward repairing that history, the committee chose an outstanding group of all-Black artists. A ceremony to celebrate this year's Dance Magazine Award recipients will take place virtually on Monday, December 7, with performances and presentations for each honoree. For ticket information, visit dancemediafoundation.org. I'm delighted to announce our incredible honorees for 2020:


Carlos Acosta

In addition to dancing with some of the world's most prestigious companies, including The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet, Carlos Acosta has choreographed productions of Don Quixote and Carmen, plus Guys and Dolls for the West End. Acosta established his own dance company, Acosta Danza, in 2016 in his native Cuba, and opened a dance academy there through the Carlos Acosta International Dance Foundation a year later. He also became artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet in January 2020, and currently leads both organizations on either side of the Atlantic.

Debbie Allen

An internationally recognized director, choreographer, teacher, dancer and actor, Debbie Allen first made her mark on Broadway in revivals like West Side Story, for which she was nominated for a Tony. She became a household name with the movie-turned-television-classic "Fame," and has since directed and produced several TV series including "A Different World," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Scandal." Allen has been artist in residence at the Kennedy Center for over 15 years. She founded the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, mentoring and inspiring hundreds of students. She is currently an executive producer, director and actress on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."

Camille A. Brown

Camille A. Brown's prolific choreography merges her modern dance foundation with elements of African, social dance and musical theater to highlight deeply personal and complex Black experiences. In addition to being artistic director of Camille A. Brown & Dancers, she has been commissioned by companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Urban Bush Women, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Ballet Memphis. Her Broadway choreography credits include Choir Boy (for which she was nominated for a Tony) and Once On This Island. She also choreographed Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC, as well as The Metropolitan Opera's Porgy and Bess. Netflix's soon-to-be-released Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe, will mark her feature film debut.

Laurieann Gibson

After training in Dunham, Horton and Graham at The Ailey School, Laurieann Gibson began her career dancing for Mary J. Blige. As a choreographer and creative director, she went on to work with such artists as Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Michael Jackson, Diddy and Katy Perry. She also choreographed the Universal feature film Honey, which was based partly on Gibson's personal experiences. In 2005, she was the on-air choreographer of MTV's hit show "Making the Band." Most recently, Gibson has appeared as a choreographer and judge on "So You Think You Can Dance."

Alonzo King

Contemporary ballet choreographer Alonzo King is founder and artistic director of San Francisco's Alonzo King LINES Ballet. In 1989, he opened the San Francisco Dance Center, offering weekly classes for professionals and community members alike. With more than 160 works to his name, his choreography appears in the repertoires of companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Royal Swedish Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He's collaborated with BaAka Nzwba Lela dancers and musicians from the Central African Republic, Shaolin monks, vocalist Lisa Fischer and many other artists from all over the world.

Chairman's Award: Darren Walker

A Chairman's Award, chosen by Dance Media CEO Frederic M. Seegal to honor distinctive leaders behind the scenes, will go to Darren Walker. As president of the Ford Foundation, Walker has been an instrumental leader in philanthropy, supporting the arts with an eye to social justice.

Harkness Promise Awards: Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders

The Harkness Promise Awards, which offer a $5,000 grant, 40 hours of rehearsal space and ongoing mentorship for innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting professional work, will go to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders. These awards, given in partnership with the Harkness Foundation for Dance, are funded by net proceeds from the Dance Magazine Awards ceremony.

Marshall has presented his company Kyle Marshall Choreography at BAM New Wave Festival, Jacob's Pillow Inside/Out, Joe's Pub, and NYC Summerstage. Forté-Saunders, a former member of Urban Bush Women, is currently collaborating with her partner, composer Everett Asis Saunders, as 7NMS; the pair also directs ART & POWER, an emerging platform for artists, writers, scientists, spiritualists and scholars, dedicated to Black purpose and innovation.

Check out Dance Magazine's December issue to learn more about each of these incredible artists. A ceremony to celebrate them will take place virtually on Monday, December 7, with performances and presentations for each honoree. For ticket information, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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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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