Free to Be...

Beau Campbell finishes her season with Ballet Arizona in late spring. Then the company takes a two-month summer break, but Campbell, 26, doesn’t. After a short vacation (two weeks in Europe last year), she gets into her Toyota and drives from Phoenix to her native California. Robert Dekkers’ Post:Ballet gets going in San Francisco in late June, and this is Campbell’s fourth year as a guest artist.

Pickup companies and off-season gigs have a long tradition in the dance world. The reasons dancers and choreographers latch onto them go beyond the mixed blessing of being the kind of people who thrive on hard work.

“I feel a lot more free,” Campbell says of dancing with Post:Ballet, a modern-classical-multidisciplinary venture that features Dekkers’ choreography, as opposed to Ballet Arizona, which normally performs full-length ballets and Balanchine repertoire. “The works that I’m doing at Post leave a lot more room for interpretation,” she says. “I don’t feel an obligation to look at past ballerinas doing parts or perform a certain way. It’s easier to throw yourself into something and not be scared of the outcome.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Andrew Bartee agrees. At 22, he is a PNB veteran: He started school there at age 12 and joined the corps de ballet in 2009. But he relishes his work with Olivier Wevers’ Whim W’Him, which focuses on modern movement. “I’m in socks all the time, which I enjoy,” says Bartee, who also works with choreographer Kate Wallich’s The YC, which puts its pop culture credentials front and center. “It feels free to me.”

There’s that word again. But for Bartee, the freedom and variety are also practical steps in his career development. “My work at PNB is a lot more classically based, doing the full-lengths and lots of corps work,” he says. “I feel like I’m growing so much faster than I would be just working on Sleeping Beauty.”

Wevers sometimes choreographs roles specifically for Bartee, including Flower Festival, a duet with Lucien Postlewaite that Bartee loves because it is “very shape-driven and angular.” Bartee, who has choreographed for PNB and presented his first piece for Whim W’Him in May, admires Wevers’ focus on male partnering. “There is an equal give-and-take relationship in that kind of partnership that is very physically satisfying—you feel like you are being supported as much as you are supporting your partner.”

Directing—as well as dancing in—a part-time company has its own appeal, as New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht has discovered. He founded his own pickup company, recently renamed Stars of American Ballet, in 2008. Although the troupe’s mission is developing arts awareness beyond America’s cultural capitals, Ulbricht appreciates his fellow dancers’ situations. “It’s the opportunity to sometimes perform a new role, explore new partnerships,” he says. “It allows them to experiment without the pressure” and expectations of a big company.

As for Ulbricht, he admits that he “fell in love with the process of it—booking travel, acquiring rights.” He had considered returning to school, maybe to study arts administration, but has decided that company management can feel like a university education in itself. “I’m able to stimulate the intellectual and logistical side of my career,” he says. “God only knows what I’m going to be doing 10 years from now.”

This year Ulbricht’s company has tour dates in Texas, Alabama and, thanks to a personal contact, Ulan Bator, Mongolia. But travel is just a bonus. “Variety is really what keeps you going,” he says. “It sparks my dancing and my teaching.”

That makes sense to Gemma Bond, as well. The absence of variety is one thing she doesn’t miss about The Royal Ballet in London, where she danced as a first artist until she joined American Ballet Theatre five years ago. “When I was in The Royal, I wasn’t close-minded,” she says. “I was going to see others dance. But in the corps de ballet, you do the same things over and over.” Plus, The Royal “has shows all year, so there was no time for me to do any other projects.”

Now, thanks to ABT’s schedule, she is able to work with Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet throughout the year. One of her works for the company had its premiere in March. “I just love the process of creating something new,” says Bond, 30. She also will make a piece for Intermezzo, a new part-time company founded by ABT soloist Craig Salstein, who considers his venture something of a cause. “I’m rebelling against the repertoire, the repeating and reviving,” says Salstein, 30.

Of course, ABT has its share of new, often innovative works, many by its artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky, but the bulk of the repertoire is still classical and doesn’t tend to show off the corps as individual dancers. Salstein, who acknowledges that the classical repertoire has been very good to him, says he sees “other people suffering in the corps, because they’re sort of chess pieces” and prone to apathy.

In October, Intermezzo will dance a program choreographed to Giuseppe Verdi’s string quartet in E minor and music from Un Ballo in Maschera at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, celebrating Verdi’s 200th birthday. Eight young dancers will take the stage and each will have his or her moment in the sun in front of a discerning New York audience. Salstein, who has also invited ABT principal Marcelo Gomes to make a work for the new company, says that Intermezzo does not signal a career move and that he doesn’t aspire to be the next artistic director of anything (“I’m not looking for an exit strategy”). It is not an ego-driven decision either, he says, because he does not expect to dance or even choreograph, for now. Freedom comes in many guises.

Anita Gates writes about the arts for
The New York Times.

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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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