Zeleidy Crespo and members of Acosta/Danza in Raúl Reinoso's "Sartori." Photo courtesy Acosta/Danza.

Inside Acosta/Danza, Where Risk Meets Reward

The 2018 Spansih film Yuli recounts the ascendancy of Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta from the impoverished streets of Los Pinos to The Royal Ballet's most decorated guest dancer. Now, as a choreographer, his ambitions turn toward directing Havana's Acosta/Danza, a pocket-sized company he founded bearing the Cubanía stamp. "We encapsulate the best of Cuban dance," Acosta tells me over email. "That's why I've chosen dancers with different backgrounds and preparations: ballet, contemporary, folkloric and theatrical dance, unusual for any company here and internationally."


'Yuli' - first trailer for Icíar Bollaín's San Sebastian Competition title www.youtube.com



I recently visited the company's bold-faced studios on Calle Linea in Havana's Vedado neighborhood, where a Vaganova and Cuban-style ballet class was being given by guest teacher Lorna Feijóo. Feijóo, a former Boston Ballet principal who now directs Feijóo Ballet School in Dickinson, Texas, graduated from the Cuba's national academy, as did Acosta. After class the company dancers showed me two repertoire works: Faun by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, danced by Zeleidy Crespo and Carlos Luis Blanco, and the ensemble piece Satori, by company member Raúl Reinoso. While contemporary in style, both choreographers open space for dancers to work from a variety of backgrounds in a complementary way, rather than from a strictly homogeneous template.

"I saw Carlos dance from the time I was very young," Reinoso tells me afterwards. He began choreographing as a student, and later danced with several contemporary companies. "His determination gave me courage to give up the career I had to join Acosta/Danza, this groundbreaking experiment." Reinoso notes that it's tempting to think that Acosta's star power explains the company's success. "But it's not the sole factor attracting audiences," he says. "We're a crucible for new choreography, like the pieces you just saw. And venues outside Cuba are eager to have us back."

The company's positive reception pleases Acosta. "In only three years we have managed to achieve worldwide recognition, and bring previously unseen and respected choreographers to Cuban audiences, such as Christopher Bruce and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui," Acosta says. Others include Justin Peck, Ben Stevenson, María Rovira and Goyo Montero. "But there is still a lot of work to be done."


The Frost Interview - Carlos Acosta: From pauper to prince www.youtube.com

Part of that work includes building up the company's educational wing, the Acosta/Danza Academy, currently housed in the company's headquarters. But eventually he hopes to oversee the revival of Cubanacán, the multi-disciplinary arts school that once housed the Cuban National Ballet School. The series of domed, interconnected buildings, each dedicated to a visual or performing arts discipline, was built in the early 60s on a former country club site. Later, the ballet school was moved to downtown Havana. Owing to scarcities in building materials and ongoing disagreements among the three architects responsible for the original design, the campus has remained abandoned for three decades or more.


"The best tribute to that institution would be to create a great art education project there, the purpose for which those buildings were constructed," says Acosta. "If we succeed, and prevent their loss, art will have won a great battle. I haven't given up on saving it, but in the meantime, we are successfully operating from our current base here in El Vedado."

Verónica Corveas, a former Cuban National Ballet principal dancer, is charged with running the school. "As Carlos has grown and matured, his company concept broadened to include not only indigenous styles, but those in vogue outside of Cuba, based on what he saw and believed he could add," she says. "My job is to build a school capturing those possibilities in its training, which rests on our national school foundations. Our students can count on having the tools they need."

As the school grows, Acosta relies on open auditions, by no means the norm in Cuba, to find company dancers. "We look for professional dancers, graduates of Cuban arts schools," he says. "From those we select the best, but dancers come and go, so we replenish frequently until a time when we can draw from our own newly-established academy."



Next year, says Acosta, the company is touring to the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Dubai, and he plans to continue building the company's repertoire, most of which has been contemporary. "Interestingly, we are in a position to move into classical, which I like," says Laura Rodríguez, a young company member who formerly danced with Ballet Camagüey. "We began small, and moved into medium-sized works. We will complete the circle with longer classical works. We create the kind of physical conditioning through our work and training that will enable us to be able to bring every genre to the stage, from classical pointe to folkloric, to contemporary, to modern, regardless of what we walked in with. How many companies of our size here in Cuba—or really anywhere—can take those risks three years out?"

Company member Zeleidy Crespo, who, like Acosta, is Afro-Cuban and from the same hardscrabble background, taps deep into the sap of growing up in Pinar del Río, where free ballet training was a game changer for her. Crespo connected deeply to Yuli, Acosta's new documentary: "Yuli shows who Carlos is. I find myself in it, with so many on the margins whose hopes are intimately tied to ours. It moved me to tears, because that would be unthinkable without what Cuba—and Carlos—provided, a tremendous quotient of confidence. It's in his choreography."

In Acosta, she continues, "I see great futuristic vision. Uncertainty about future prospects can create a vicious fear cycle, but in this company, such fears have no basis."

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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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