Nina Danilova in variations class with a student from City Ballet of Wilmington, NC. Photo Courtesy Danilova.

DVDs, Be Gone! This UNSCA Teacher's Innovative Variations Class Does Away with Mimicry.

When Sara Havener was asked to learn a variation from Giselle without following an instructor or DVD, she was taken aback. Nina Danilova, Havener's teacher at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, wanted her to learn it from written text and pictures.

"At first I didn't know what to expect," says Havener, who recently danced with Atlanta Ballet. "I'd never gone into this detailed approach with every step written down." Despite her initial trepidation, Havener soon came to love learning variations this way.

A former Kirov Ballet dancer, Danilova developed her innovative five-step method, which eliminates mimicking teachers, other dancers or DVDs, in 2008. After observing students robotically memorize steps in her own variations class, she was determined to develop a better way to teach them—one that helped dancers discover their artistry. Because they use their mind to connect to the variation from the beginning, much like how an actor discovers a role from a script, they can give depth to and develop their personal interpretation of a role, and feel confident in what they create.

"A dancer's brain is as important as her legs," says Danilova. "A mechanical step is only physical. Ballet is art and needs your heart, emotion, imagination and vision."

Danilova's methodology is gaining adherents from dance teachers in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia, and she recently released a book, Eight Female Classical Ballet Variations, that outlines her method. How does her system work? We break down its five steps below with five professional dancers who studied under Danilova.


Sara Havener in Atlanta Ballet's "Nutcracker." Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

Know the Character

To give a variation meaning, dancers must first find out who they are portraying. That means learning the variation's time period, cultural influences and what it is meant to convey, according to Danilova. Dancers can pull from a variety of sources, including online searches; ballet literature, such as George Balanchine's 101 Stories of the Great Ballets; and books, art and movies that depict the period.

For instance, Dutch National Ballet's Clara Superfine found the fragile side of the vengeful Myrtha from Giselle after studying the mythology behind the Queen of the Wilis.

"Often Myrtha comes across as just angry or evil," says Superfine. "But she's been betrayed by her lover and is vulnerable and hurt. It's important to find each of these characters within yourself and your own version of the dance."


Study the Choreography

The second step is learning the variation from a notation system, called Classical Ballet Language, and its accompanying pictures, diagrams and counts—the choreography's "score," if you will. CBL, which uses abbreviations for dance movements, specifies each step and its head and arm positions. The notation system was developed in 1989 by Valeria Uralskaya, editor of the Russian magazine Ballet, and modernized by Danilova.

Learning CBL wasn't easy, says Boston Ballet artist Dawn Atkins. It took her about a month to master the system, which she compared to learning a foreign language. However, reading CBL eventually turned into a game of discovery in which every choreographic element of a variation was revealed.

While it takes work to master CBL, it's worth the effort, says Atkins. The specificity of CBL eliminates confusion or misinterpretation of each step as well as any embellishments another dancer has added, she says.


Atkins in Boston Ballet's "Swan Lake." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.


From Notes to Movement

Next the dancers translate the notations into movement, and they do it only to counts—8 or 16 counts of the variation at
a time. They then count those bars as they listen to the music before adding the steps. Such deliberate work allows dancers to perfect their technique, body positions and musicality, says Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Lauren Derrig, while Atkins found that learning a variation's counts up front forces her to interpret the music and choreography together.


Make the Variation Your Own

As dancers practice to build stamina and polish details, they imbue the variation with their artistry. This is a natural progression, as they have been intellectually engaged with the choreography from the start. Every detail they add, whether that be bringing fire to a movement, adding épaulement, holding a penché, syncopating a rhythm or using their eyes in a specific manner, comes from the individual and no one else.

The process allows dancers to create something that is uniquely theirs, says Dance Theatre of Harlem artist Alicia Mae Holloway. She was struck by how distinctive each of her classmates looked when performing variations in small groups during Danilova's class. "We were all doing the same steps but executing them differently," she says. "I thought, 'Wow, we all have our own individuality.' "


Ballet Theatre of Maryland's Lauren Derrig. Photo by Drew Davis, COurtesy Danilova.


Onstage

By the last step, performing, the students' dancing has become seamless. Every movement—from the manner in which the dancers approach it to its execution—is ingrained in their muscle memory, says Derrig. "Rehearsing the variation as specifically as we did allows a sense of freedom onstage," she says. "You lose yourself while you are performing."


Those interested in Nina Danilova's methodology may contact her for a workshop at nina_dani@yahoo.com or follow it in her book, Eight Female Classical Ballet Variations, available from Oxford University Press and Amazon.

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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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