Gabriela Mesa, Fabian Morales and Josue Justiz Brito in Ariel Rose's Esferas. Photo by Simon Soong, Courtesy DDTM.

This Fledgling Miami Ballet Company Is Already Making Its Joyce Theater and Jacob's Pillow Debuts

When Jennifer Kronenberg launched Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami with husband Carlos Guerra less than two years ago, she never dreamed their fledgling troupe would be performing in two of the country's most famous dance venues so soon.

"It's surreal," said the former Miami City Ballet principal ballerina, as Dimensions prepared to open the Joyce Theater's Ballet Festival June 26 and 27, going on to the Jacob's Pillow's Inside/Out series on June 29. "We're still very new. Some companies have been around forever and never get invited to places like the Joyce and Jacob's Pillow."

Adds Guerra, "We never thought we would reach this level in such a short time. It's been an amazing journey."

They owe their early arrival to two of the qualities that have already made the 16-member ensemble a successful and beloved presence in Miami: strong community connections, and a repertory and roster that reflect this predominantly Latino city.



Last fall Eric Fliss, general manager of the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where Dimensions is a resident company and audience favorites, told fellow members of the Dance/USA Presenters Council that a Dimensions concert had been the Center's most exciting dance event. That got the attention of Joyce executive director Linda Shelton.

"I had not heard of them before," said Shelton, who said the troupe fit the festival's aim of highlighting new companies or dancers heading projects outside large companies.

That Guerra and seven Dimensions dancers are from Cuba was also a plus for the Joyce, which has presented and fostered dance from the island nation.

Their Cuban side will be showcased there in Septime Webre's exuberantly nostalgic Juanita y Alicia, inspired by the former Washington Ballet artistic director's Cuban ancestry and set to classic Cuban tunes performed by a live band—a company signature they're keeping for New York. ("Because we're nuts," laughs Kronenberg.) The program also includes Esferas, a sculptural trio by MCB dancer and rising choreographer Ariel Rose; and Stepping Into Blue, a dreamlike duet for Kronenberg and Guerra from Atlanta-based Tara Lee, commissioned by the Joyce.

Another highlight is Light Rain, a 1981 ballet by deceased Joffrey Ballet leader Gerald Arpino, which earned standing ovations in Miami last November. It was staged by Cameron Basden, the Joffrey's former associate artistic director and close collaborator with Arpino, in honor of the 10th anniversary of his death. (The Pillow program features an excerpt from Light Rain, Esferas, and The Vow, another Rose ballet.)

Members of Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami in Septime Webre's "Juanita y Alicia." Photo by Simon Soong, Courtesy DDTM.

Basden, who taught Arpino's frequently off-kilter, grounded, sensual style to Dimensions dancers, is elated this vital young company is bringing the ballet back to its New York City roots. (Shelton, general manager of the Joffrey before moving to the Joyce, is also pleased.)

"It's a New York ballet, and Joffrey was a New York company when it was created," said Basden. "Light Rain… signifies that independence and freedom the company spoke of at that time. It may open people's eyes as to why the Joffrey was exciting in its day, and such an important part of the New York scene."

Though Kronenberg and Guerra performed several times in New York as leading dancers with MCB, presenting their own company feels very different.

"It gives us this sense of validation," says Kronenberg. "We're still struggling to run this thing. Now we can't say it's too much for us—it's something we've created and people are counting on us."

Everyone is thrilled about the tour. But the Cuban dancers, recent arrivals when they joined Dimensions, are over the moon—making this doubly emotional for Guerra, whom MCB founding artistic director Edward Villella took in when Guerra came to Miami in 2001.


Gabriela Mesa and Fabian Morales in "light Rain." Photo by Simon Soong, courtesy DDTM.

"It brings back memories of how I always wanted to dance in the U.S. and Edward gave me this beautiful opportunity," said Guerra. "I'm very fortunate that we are able to do this for other people."

Though a $150,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has stabilized Dimensions' finances, Kronenberg and Guerra have hustled to raise $20,000 to pay for this tour (they are not receiving artist fees or travel expenses). They've done a crowdfunding campaign and outside paid gigs, paid for some flights and used frequent flyer miles for others. Dancers will save on meals by using the microwaves in their hotel rooms, and take a bus to the Pillow.

But there's a happy team spirit to the effort. Some Miami supporters are flying up for the Joyce show. The enthusiasm helps as Dimensions confronts the intimidating prospect of the sophisticated audiences at these storied dance venues.

"They've seen it all, especially New York," says Kronenberg. "All we can do is show them who we are and have a great time, and give them a great time and make them leave the theater joyful."


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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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