Claire Wu (in pink tutu) with her fellow competitors at the Genée IBC in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Wu.

Dancer's Notebook: My Week at the Genée International Ballet Competition

My name is Claire Wu, and I'm a Dance major at Butler University. Earlier this month I went to Hong Kong to participate in the 2018 Genée International Ballet Competition, hosted by the Royal Academy of Dance. The Genée is for dancers who have received RAD training and passed their last vocational exam (Advanced Two) with the highest marks of a distinction. I received my RAD training at my home studio, Rachel's Ballet, in Fremont, California, where I was awarded the Solo Seal Award in 2016.

I had also attended the Genée in 2016 when it was held in Sydney, Australia, and I had such a great experience that I wanted to participate again. Unlike most competitions, the Genée has five days of classes and coaching before the semi-finals, which consist of a class onstage, a Dancer's Own solo and a classical variation. The contestants also learn a commissioned variation, which is performed by the finalists. Since the competition was far away, I applied for the Dame Darcy Bussell Genée Bursary, a scholarship to help cover the costs of the competition. I was one of the few competitors awarded one, and it was one of my ultimate deciding factors to go. Below is a journal of my time at the 2018 Genée.


Getting Ready

"One last run-through at my studio before heading off for Hong Kong." Photo courtesy Wu.

Training for the Genée was a bit difficult because I was away at college. I did not have much experience with choreography, so I thought that choreographing my Dancer's Own solo was the perfect opportunity to gain more. I started by searching for music. I found a tango by Astor Piazzolla, "Libertango," that could show a bolder, sassier side of my dancing. During winter break, my teacher from my home studio, Leigh Ann Koelsch LRAD, and I rehearsed the Raymonda Act I Variation for my classical repertoire and a rough draft of my Dancer's Own. When I returned to school, I would work on the two variations when I had spare time and self-correct by taking video of rehearsals. I did not start continuous rehearsals with Leigh Ann until I returned home from Butler in May and June.

Arriving in Hong Kong

"A little bit of sight-seeing after getting on the plane." Photo courtesy Wu.

After a long flight from San Francisco, I arrived in Hong Kong on August 2. I was a little tired, but ready to explore the city. Since I'd never been to Hong Kong, we went to tourist hotspots like the Stanley Market, the Hong Kong Observatory Wheel and the Star Ferry for easy sightseeing. Hong Kong was a big contrast from the California suburban life I was used to! It was very hot and humid, and the streets were filled with people and all different kinds of stores.

Enjoying some Dim Sum. Photo courtesy Wu.

The next day, the competition officially started with registration. I moved into the hotel room, met my roommate Enoka, got my schedule for the week, and met the other candidates and faculty. I was a little nervous at first because I did not know anyone, but I was quickly put at ease, as everyone seemed friendly.

Coaching Sessions

"Some of the competitors in my group and I before rehearsal." Photo courtesy Wu.

The competition started with five days of classes and rehearsals. We were divided up into four smaller groups for the coaching sessions, which gave us more time for corrections and kept us from waiting too long between dances. We'd run our variations one-by-one and receive notes afterwards. Since most of us had been rehearsing our variations for a while, the teachers focused less on technique and more on spacing and being in character. Our classical coaching sessions were led by former Royal Ballet dancer Petal Miller Ashmole, who teaches and coaches worldwide. She worked with me mostly on using the stage evenly and on my port de bras. Hilary Clark, the Genée's producer, coached my Dancer's Own solo. She advised me to make my entrance and exit a continuation of the piece, to be aware of my spacing and to make sure my lines were flattering to the audience.

Watching Hong Kong Ballet rehearse Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland). Photo courtesy Wu.

We were also lucky enough to watch Hong Kong Ballet rehearse Septime Webre's ALICE (in wonderland) after classes. It was very inspiring to see a professional ballet company in action, which included a past Genée silver medalist, principal Ye Fei Fei.

Commissioned Variation

Wu with Genée IBC's commissioned choreographer Carlo Pacis. Photo Courtesy Wu.

We also had to learn a new piece during the coaching sessions. Carlo Pacis, a former Hong Kong Ballet dancer and award-winning choreographer, created the piece, Leila, for the female candidates. The challenge was making the variation performance ready in less than a week! But this experience gave me a taste of the professional dance world. On the first day, we learned the whole variation. In the subsequent days, Carlo worked meticulously on details, such as arm placements and spacing, editing the piece as he went along. He had great energy and was very specific, but still encouraged us to have our own interpretations.

The main thing I took away from working with Carlo is to be attentive. During his coaching sessions, we were given so much information, and being both physically and mentally present helped a great deal. Watching the other dancers and listening to their corrections was also very helpful. It allowed me to see how people interpreted the dance differently, and gave me ideas of how I wanted to perform the piece.

Semi-Finals

Wu (left) with another competitor after completing the semi-final's classical portion. Photo courtesy Wu.

During the semi-finals, I felt a little anxious, but mostly excited and ready to perform the class and my variations. Since I have competed before, I knew what to do to handle my nerves: I calmed myself down by taking deep breaths and telling myself that the solos have continued to improve and that I just needed be the character and perform. I kept my mind busy by going through the choreography and reviewing corrections I received throughout the week. Onstage, I focused more on the artistry and performance quality, letting the technique fall into place.

Wu (right) in costume for her Dancer's Own variation. Photo Courtesy Wu.

I was happy with my performances. I felt that I was on my leg and performed to my best of my abilities. It was a little nerve-racking performing my own choreography, but I was happy with how it turned out. I even got a few compliments about it afterwards! Although I did not make it to the final, I gained a lot from the experience and loved watching the finalists perform their variations and the commissioned piece.

Afterthoughts

"I was so happy for her and all she had accomplished." Wu with her roommate, bronze-medalist Enoka Sato. Photo courtesy Wu.

I had a wonderful time at the 2018 Genée. Since I had attended before, I felt that I was able to enjoy the whole experience more because I was older and knew what to expect. At the closing reception, I congratulated the finalists which included my roommate, Enoka Sato, who received the bronze medal! I was so happy for her and all she had accomplished. I made friends from all over the world that I would never have gotten to meet if this was not an international competition. I learned about their countries and their different approaches towards dance training. Watching my peers through both the rehearsal process and performances has inspired and motivated me to continue to improve.

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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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