"Giselle experiences her emotions with such a quiet intensity that her death from heartbreak is truly plausible."

Becoming Giselle: Gillian Murphy Shares How She Mastered One of Ballet's Most Iconic Roles

Photography by Joe Toreno.

When I was 19 years old and in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theatre, a domino effect of casting changes left me with three days to learn and prepare my first dramatic leading role: Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. There was not enough time to feel overwhelmed, let alone to delve into the nuances of her character. Although diving right in and winging it on willpower is exhilarating, I have learned in the 15 years since that one of my favorite aspects of dancing is the research and emotional decision-making that go into developing a dramatic interpretation. I recently prepared for the role of Giselle in Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg's new production for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Although having advance notice gave me the time to feel nervous about tackling such an iconic role, it also allowed me the opportunity to develop my own interpretation through a mixture of research and instinct, which was further refined by coaching, rehearsal and performance.

Murphy in RNZB company class at The Music Center.

An Act II rehearsal.

Dance biographer Richard Austin once wrote: “A ballerina who may tomorrow dance Giselle for the first time, preserves (though she may not be aware of it) fragments of many lost Giselles…they live on in her, dance again, secret and unknown, in her dancing. She has her inheritance." My journey began at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I found descriptions or archival films of many famous Giselles—from Carlotta Grisi's stunning premiere in 1841 to the stark contrasts between Galina Ulanova and Olga Spessivtzeva's interpretations (uninhibited joy versus eccentricity) and the impact of ballerinas such as Alicia Markova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova in the role. Aside from contemplating the ballet's historical significance, its sources of Romantic inspiration and its universal resonance over time, I had a key personal realization during this research phase. Many of the great Giselles were strong and lean but not wispy in the modern sense, and they imbued her character with delicacy through artistry and a weightless movement quality rather than through a particularly fragile body-type. Therefore, I needed to work on moving with more ethereality, but my natural strength and slightly curvy shape would not exclude me from suiting the role. With this myth undone, my excitement gained momentum.

After learning about the Giselles of the past and having admired many of today's greatest interpreters, I had distilled my own theories regarding characterization. First of all, the fundamental key to embodying Giselle is to radiate purity and sensitivity. In the first act, she glows with an inner joy and with her love for dance and for Albrecht. She is so honest, and her feelings for Albrecht so wholehearted, that she cannot reconcile his betrayal with her soulful belief in the goodness of the world. She experiences her emotions, whether happiness or uncertainty, with such a quiet intensity that her sudden death from heartbreak is truly plausible, and even death pales in the face of her eternal compassion. Her ghostly spirit is simply an elevated extension of her former earthly self. As Makarova writes in her insightful autobiography, "in the second act, [Giselle's] soul, freed of all that is worldly, superficial, and ordinary, is filled with regal quietude and wisdom." Her inner joy is now a quiet sadness, but more than ever she exudes love.

Dress rehearsal on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.

With this lofty objective in mind, I began to work one holiday week on the steps and range of expressive details with my ABT coach, Susan Jaffe. My initial sessions rehearsing with Susan informed and corroborated my intellectual research and emotional reflections, and I began the transition from philosophy to choreography. As any dancer is well aware, there are a plethora of things we work on day in and day out to refine the classical technique. With Giselle specifically, the Romantic style deeply affects the technical aspects of the second act because the whole body must project a feeling of floating. This requires, among many other stylistic details: an elongated neck, a willowy use of the arms, a real lift and a slight hovering incline of the upper body. Several moments in the second act are daunting and treacherous, but finding that intense control and gravity-defying lightness of quality is the means to express the essence of Giselle's soaring spirit and her sustained, eternal love. Character is paramount; it is not enough to create shapes and movements that evoke otherworldly Romantic lithographs. Giselle's physicality in every moment serves to express her mystical wisdom and her yearning to protect Albrecht.

Leading up to my RNZB premiere in Wellington, New Zealand, I had further invaluable guidance from Amanda McKerrow, who came to coach the production's Giselles, and she helped me continue to integrate my hypothetical interpretation with actual movement and expression. As I faced the challenges of the choreography in my solos and with my strong and thoughtful partner in New Zealand, Qi Huan, many of my reflections on the nuances of the character seemed unnecessary. But as Mikhail Baryshnikov has said, "I know that many of these ideas do not translate literally to an audience, do not always come across, but they help me believe in the role as I feel it should be." I found this notion particularly useful while tackling Giselle's mad scene, which must be powerfully realistic, rather than artificially fevered, in order to do justice to her heartache. The only way I could initially approach this scene was to figure out the inner monologue and intention that motivates Giselle's pacing amidst her reveries, regression and grief. For instance, the circle she draws with her sword is believed by the superstitious villagers to represent a circle of death. When Hilarion steps in to try and save her, he is deliberately crossing the threshold of death, and she recoils in disbelief and horror.

A quick drink in the wings between entrances.

Susan Jaffe, Amanda McKerrow, Johan Kobborg and my fiancé, Ethan Stiefel, were all incredibly generous in sharing their insights but also consistently supportive of my following my own intuition. In the words of another Giselle, Violette Verdy, “content cannot be imitated; it must be understood…the dancer must always come back to herself and the process of self-discovery; only in this way is it possible to build a role."

A good luck kiss from fiancé and company director Ethan Stiefel.

As I moved from the studio to the stage for the first time, I felt prepared enough to trust my instinct and react freely to the music. My first performance of Giselle in Wellington was one of the highlights of my career, and I have been fortunate to have many more shows, including two live, filmed performances for the New Zealand Film Commission's movie of Giselle, as well as shows in Beijing and Los Angeles. Aside from continuing to work on many technical nuances and playing with various dramatic choices, as the shows went on I felt a greater sense of the bittersweet pathos at the end of the first act and for sustained moments in the second act. Each performance felt quite different from the last, and it made me realize that the journey in such a role is never truly over. The spirit of Giselle is luminous and haunting, and I am humbled and exhilarated to be amongst those who have brought her back to life.

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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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