Diary from ABT's China Tour

When ABT went on a tour to Beijing last month, Pointe asked corps member Katherine Williams (our "Dancer Spotlight" subject from June/July 09) to keep a diary of her experiences. Here's what she wrote:

 

November 10:

Our tour to Beijing is starting with a 12:40 am flight out of Orange County after a week of Giselle performances. Naturally everyone is a little tired, but the company has only ever traveled to Shanghai and Hong Kong in the past, so this will be a new experience for everyone. From what we’ve heard, Beijing has developed rapidly since the Olympics, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which is where we are performing, is a brand new theatre. I’m very excited for this tour since it’s my first trip to China, and I can’t wait to go to the Great Wall! We have an extra day off before we start performing so we can get accustomed to the thirteen-hour time difference and our generous sponsors have organized a trip for everyone to go see the Wall together. It will definitely be an unforgettable trip, as long as we can actually make it there. At the moment, we’re scheduled to land in the middle of a snowstorm!

November 11:

We have officially arrived in Beijing, after an extensive 16-hour flight due to the stormy weather conditions. Our hotel is unbelievably nice and making it a lot easier to recover after a long and tumultuous flight! We were able to get out and explore Beijing a little on the first day, and even though it’s freezing here, we trudged through the snow in search of a traditional Chinese meal. The cuisine here is much different than American Chinese food, and revolves around a lot of different meats. They don’t seem to waste any parts of the animal when cooking, and we encountered some very interesting choices such as fried pig liver and goat intestine. We decided to pass on those options and opted instead for the more traditional-sounding soups, noodles, and dumplings, which were delicious (and also really inexpensive!)
Our trip to the Great Wall was amazing! It was a long hike up all the steps and it was well worth it for the incredible views of the mountains covered in snow. I think everyone had a wonderful time and we even managed to take a group photo of all of us in our eight layers of clothing. We were all so grateful to have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this historic site, which is one of the “new” Seven Wonders of the World, and especially to experience it altogether. I know I will never forget it, and it has been the highlight of my tour so far.

November 13:

Now that we’ve started performing, our days are jam-packed with rehearsals, but everyone is still trying to squeeze in time for sightseeing as well. The shows have been going really well, though the audience here seems more subdued than our fans back home. We started off with two nights of the rep program from our fall season at Avery Fisher Fall, and have moved on to Don Quixote for the remainder of our time here. I really enjoyed our pieces this fall and have always loved Don Quixote, so I’m happy to be performing them for an audience that probably hasn’t been exposed to a lot of ballet before now. When we do find a spare minute, most people either return to the hotel for a quick nap (we are all been struggling with jet lag) or head to the Silk Market, which is a haven for bargain shopping. The deals you can find there on designer bags, accessories and clothing are fantastic—as long as you are willing to haggle with the vendors. I’m not very good at bargaining, but I’ve still managed to find some really great souvenirs, and even an extra suitcase to carry all my new purchases in.

November 16:

Our trip to Beijing was definitely memorable, and allowed us to experience a culture that is distinctly different from our own. We were able to catch a glimpse of the Chinese culture and language, and even saw how Communism affects the daily lives of the people. Towards the end of the tour, a large number of people started getting some sort of stomach flu or food poisoning, which caused some interesting changes in casting. For our final Don Quixote show, three different principal couples performed each act, and Yuriko Kajiya and Daniil Simkin made an outstanding debut as Kitri and Basilio in the third act Wedding Pas de Deux. By the end of the trip we were all ready to come home. I was delirious but happy when we touched down in New York City. I’m not sure if we will be returning to China anytime in the near future, but I am so thankful to have been given this cherished opportunity. One of the great things about being a part of ABT is having the chance to travel to so many unusual places, and to explore them with a wonderful group of people.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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