Garry Corpuz and Wang Qingxin in an ad campaign for Hong Kong Ballet. Design Army and Dean Alexander, Courtesy HKB.

How Hong Kong Ballet’s Visibility Has Swiftly Increased Under Septime Webre

"Opportunities always come when you least expect them," says Septime Webre. In 2016, he'd left The Washington Ballet, after 17 years as artistic director, to focus on his choreography career. Halfway around the world in East Asia, Hong Kong Ballet was hiring a new director for its following season, and Webre's agent convinced him to submit his resumé. "I ended up on a call with leadership and the energy between us was great," says Webre.


Webre in the studio

Calvin Sit, Courtesy HKB

Now at the helm of Hong Kong Ballet as it heads into its 40th-anniversary season, Webre is poised to launch the company into the future with refreshed repertoire and increased community engagement.

Watching the 48-dancer troupe in Terence Kohler's The Nutcracker, Webre's influence is visibly evident. He has encouraged HKB's artists to deepen their acting skills, and he's pushing them physically with greater technical feats.

The company is quite diverse, with less than 14 percent of its dancers from Hong Kong. Nearly half of its artists are from mainland China, though others are from the U.S., Cuba and Australia, plus a handful from Europe and elsewhere in Asia. Classes and rehearsals are conducted mostly in English. To further enhance HKB's roster, Webre brings in guest artists, like former Royal Ballet principal Matthew Golding and former Washington Ballet star Brooklyn Mack. However, Webre is quick to clarify their purpose: "These aren't rental principals replacing my dancers. They're with us throughout the rehearsal process for an entire program. Not only is it exciting for audiences, it offers our dancers a new perspective."

Webre is also unafraid to offer younger dancers casting opportunities. One of these artists, soloist Chen Zhiyao, has been promoted since Webre arrived. "Septime spends a lot of time in the studio," she says. "He is energetic, and pushes us to try new steps and challenges our technique. My movement is freer."

To be a Hong Kong Ballet dancer means to share a hunger for diverse programming and the choreographic process. Webre curates fresh stagings of classics, original full-lengths and opportunities for local choreographers. He aspires to build a more international rep with works by renowned names, like Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. While Webre has not completely overhauled HKB's repertoire, he is systematically introducing relevant choreography. He also continues to flex his creative muscles by crafting full-length productions, including an upcoming Hong Kong–based Romeo + Juliet set in the 1960s.

Venus Villa and Xia Jun in Terrence Kohler's The Nutcracker

Conrad Dy-Liacco, Courtesy HKB

During Webre's first season, the com- pany launched Ballet in the City, a government- funded outreach initiative which offers free outdoor shows. "Beyond outdoor main-stage performances, I commission short works to adapt to unusual spaces, like balconies, plazas and niches," he says. Ballet in the City's first performances—at a local heritage site—were attended by more than 30,000 people.

For their anniversary season starting this fall, HKB's celebrations include an International Gala of Stars and the company premiere of Balanchine's Jewels. Also on deck are Webre's Peter Pan, John Meehan's Swan Lake and the final run of Kohler's Nutcracker, which Webre will replace with his own interpretation set in historic Hong Kong.

HKB in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Sombrerisimo at Ballet in the City

Conrad Di-Liacco, Courtesy HKB

While the company does not have a school, it has a three-year agreement with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts to support serious local dancers. "Since Septime arrived, we are developing a closer relationship with HKAPA, and also reaching out to other schools," notes Chen. Artistic staff teaches advanced students monthly, and dancers with professional potential receive paid summer apprenticeships. While the company is work- ing diligently to develop local talent, it still relies on open auditions. In the past two seasons, 17 new dancers have been hired, with about 90 percent coming from outside of Hong Kong.

With a nearly 130 percent increase in subscriptions since Webre took over, Hong Kong Ballet continues to grow as a gem of this East-meets-West territory. "I see the ballet world as a global village and approach directing from an international impact standpoint," says Webre. "How can Hong Kong Ballet become more important internationally?" With its forward-thinking director, diverse roster and increased reach, this company is aligning itself as one of Asia's leading arts organizations.

Audition Advice

Hong Kong Ballet holds an annual international audition tour and accepts video auditions. "Dancers don't have to be experienced, but need talent, training and coordination," says Webre. "I look for factor X, which while undefined is something extraordinary."

Hong Kong Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 48

Length of contract: Yearlong

Starting salary: Competitive (undisclosed)

Performances per year: About 60

Website: hkballet.com

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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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