Sarasota Ballet in Ashton's Birthday Offering. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Why Understanding Ballet's Rich History Can Inform Its Future

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

It's a truth often repeated about ballet that it is an art with a strong oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Aspiring dancers learn the same steps that their teachers learned before them and perfect the same skills: turnout, pointework, épaulement, balance and, above all nowadays, flexibility. Sometimes, in the quest to achieve ever-greater heights of technical skill, other aspects of the art recede into the background. Nuances of interpretation and style can seem less important, even though they are the very things that ultimately make a dancer interesting to watch. That's the paradox: In the age of ubiquitous sky-high extensions, the richness of a performance counts even more.

In part to push back against this single-minded focus on technique, some teachers and company directors are making a conscious effort to right the balance between technical flair and a fuller, more sensitive understanding of the art. This takes many forms: dance history classes, careful coaching or simply conversations about alternative interpretations of a role. There is a hunger for these discussions. "We're living in the age of extreme technique," says Alexandra Tomalonis, a distinguished dance writer who teaches ballet history at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. "But many of the students who come to my classes know little about the history of the art form."

Gabe Stone Shayer in Ratmansky's new bluebird pas de deux. Photo Courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

In Tomalonis' classes, dancers read about the court ballets of Louis XIV and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; they watch videos of legendary dancers from the past, like Galina Ulanova in Giselle and the original cast of George Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. "They're so visual," Tomalonis says of her students, "that when you show them a video, they quickly begin to pick up the different styles." With her help, the dancers' eyes are opened to the ideas and esthetic values that underpin those styles. Ideally, it is a process that will continue throughout a dancer's career, in collaboration with coaches and ballet masters with long performance histories of their own.

"We're living in an age of extreme technique.

But many students who come to my classes know

little about the history of the art form."

—Alexandra Tomalonis

For those who are interested, the classes can be a revelation. Michelle Katcher, who studied with Tomalonis at the Kirov Academy before moving on to the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City, found them to be hugely influential to her way of thinking: "Before taking her class, I didn't have a full understanding of what was out there; I had no idea what I liked." Reading and watching multiple interpretations of a role helped formulate her tastes, and through them, make decisions about her career. She now dances for Ballet Arizona, whose repertoire combines classical and romantic works—including, recently, August Bournonville's Napoli, Balanchine and new ballets.

It's also easier to slip into the style of a ballet if you can get inside the head of the choreographer. Last season, for example, Alexei Ratmansky created a historically informed Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre in which legs were kept low and slightly soft, generous épaulement was used, and chaîné turns were executed on half-pointe. Gabe Stone Shayer, who danced the bluebird pas de deux in the new production, described the process: "Ratmansky showed us old pictures and brought in passages from books to give us an idea of the style and the story." This engagement with history made the steps feel fresh and alive, infused with an understanding of Marius Petipa's musicality and wit.

Margaret Barbieri, shown here with Sir Frederick Ashton, is known for her vivid coaching of Ashton's work. Photo by Leslie Spatt, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet.

Margaret Barbieri, a former prima at The Royal Ballet Touring Company (later Birmingham Royal Ballet) who is now the assistant director of Sarasota Ballet, and director of its affiliated school, remembers: "Before I did my first Giselle, I read all the books I could find on Giselle and the Romantic period. I looked at all the lithographs. These are the kinds of things my husband (director Iain Webb) and I try to pass on to our dancers." Through their work, the company has made its name as one of the greatest repositories of British 20th-century ballet, especially the works of Sir Frederick Ashton, with whom Barbieri and Webb collaborated in the studio. Barbieri, in particular, is known for her vivid coaching of Ashton's ballets. When she set Birthday Offering on the company, she recounted anecdotes about each of the seven ballerinas for whom it was made. As the Sarasota principal Ellen Overstreet noted, "not many dancers get that information passed on so directly." The production sparkled.

Sometimes, a single interpretation can change the way one conceives of a role. Lourdes Lopez, who directs Miami City Ballet, recalls the shock of seeing Olga Spessivtseva's rendition of Giselle on YouTube in a video from the 1930s. The film reveals the wildness and spontaneity of Spessivtseva's interpretation, far more naturalistic than what we see today, and much less pretty. It can be liberating to see firsthand the work of a mold-breaking artist from another era. And a useful reminder that there is no one way to approach a ballet, even one as familiar as Giselle. (Lopez, too, has instituted a dance history class at the company's school.)

Olga Spessivtseva. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

For dancers who can see beyond the lower arabesques and retirés of earlier generations, a knowledge of the past can offer evidence of different, perhaps more personal, ways of moving. Shayer, who studied at Gwendolyn Bye Dance Center and The Rock School for Dance Education before completing his training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, first heard about Soviet-era Bolshoi dancers like Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova from one of his earliest teachers, Alexander Boitsov. When he saw them on video, he felt an immediate affinity with the Russian style. "My classmates were obsessed with current dancers and how high their legs could go, but something that stayed with me was the passion of the old Russian dancers," he says.

History and style are intertwined. Without understanding the first, the second can be hard to grasp. Nicole Duffy Robertson, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who now teaches weekly history classes at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City (which is not affiliated with the Chicago–based dance company) considers the preservation of the Joffrey legacy to be an essential part of her mission, even as the company moves away from the repertoire of founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Robertson devotes a quarter of her one-year course to Joffrey Ballet history: "I like to emphasize Robert Joffrey's vision: the breaking down of barriers between ballet and modern dance, the encouraging of new choreography that was American through the embracing of popular music and culture, multimedia and political content"—all ideas that have trickled into the wider ballet repertoire.

Ballet is more than pliés and well-placed pirouettes; it is a continuum that constantly builds on itself, looking forward and back in equal measure. It helps to be aware of the meandering arc that has led it to where it is today. As Lopez puts it, "The more you know the history, the more you feel part of something bigger than yourself."

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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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