Cuba's Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, one of the four theaters in use during the festival. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Reporter's Notebook: Inside Cuba's 26th Havana International Ballet Festival

Anyone attending the National Ballet of Cuba's biennial Havana International Ballet Festival can expect an adventure that is equal parts treasure hunt and lottery, amidst a cornucopia of choices. This year's festival, the 26th, was no exception, offering 25 programs in four theaters. The event, held October 28-November 6, was also notable for the unanticipated absence of 96-year-old Alicia Alonso, the host company's founder and Cuba's ballerina assoluta. Due to flagging health, Alonso was unable to make her customary opening night appearance, where she would have been seated alongside Cuba's new President, Miguel Díaz-Canel.



In addition to Cathy Marston's riveting world premiere Prospera for National Ballet of Cuba and a cavalcade of classical pas de deux by returned Cuban dancers who currently dance abroad, the festival presented outstanding works by guest companies. Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève presented Claude Brumachon's absorbing Carmina Burana, while Dance Alive National Ballet, an energetic Florida company that enjoyed close ties with the late Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso, offered a mixed repertoire evening. Other programs were dotted with guest performers, including Ellison Ballet's Elisabeth Beyer performing Grand Pas Classique with Cuban-born guest artist Daniel Sarabia, and American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston and Aran Bell. The hectic pace that had rehearsals taking place back to back in four theaters and the company studios brought remarkably few mishaps, and the programs proceeded seamlessly. Read on for some of the festival's brightest highlights.

Stars of American Ballet

New York City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht's Stars of American Ballet, its dancers culled in part from NYCB, presented an eclectic program of classical ballet, tango and hip hop. Sterling Hyltin, Teresa Reichlen, Indiana Woodward, Ask la Cour and Gonzalo Garcia readily gave up their vacation time from NYCB to make the trip, dancing excerpts from Balanchine's Tarantella, Apollo and "Diamonds" from Jewels; Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy and Lar Lubovitch's Elemental Brubeck. The program was anchored by two pieces that showcased award-winning ballroom dancers Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina, including Drozdyuk's Irresistible, set to a Michael Jackson mix. Ulbricht also choreographed two pieces on the program: Tres Hombres for Joseph Gatti, Drozdyuk and himself to an Astor Piazolla tango score, and Sing, Sing, Sing for himself and Danielle Diniz.

During a press conference, Ulbricht explained his own exposure to Cuban-style training with teacher Javier Dubrocq, and that he hoped his company's eclectic repertoire could offer something Cuban audiences rarely get to experience. Over email Ulbricht elaborated, comparing his curated program to a restaurant menu with enough variety to please all tastes. He felt vindicated that the energy the performance generated took the Cuban audience on a wild ride that surpassed their expectations of his NYCB cachet: Audiences cheered and stamped their feet, applauding until the floors and walls shook—it felt forceful enough to blow apart the U.S. embargo, metaphorically speaking.

Does he think the cultural exchange between his company and the Cuban artists as a symbolic act that challenges the U.S. embargo? "Dance—and the arts in general—have the unique ability to transcend borders and politics," says Ulbricht. "We can only represent the beauty and culture we share, not the policies in place. Hopefully, that won't be the case for too much longer."

National Ballet of Cuba Welcomes Back Its Diaspora

In a generous change of heart, National Ballet of Cuba invited leading dancers who have left the island nation for a variety of reasons to participate in this year's festival without the sting of recrimination or rancor. Returning dancers performed a variety of pas de deux or solo variations throughout the festival programs, including Midsummer Night's Dream and the Black Swan pas de deux by Yanela Piñera and Camilo Ramos of Queensland Ballet. Ballet de Monterrey's jaunty Lissi Baez and Cincinnati Ballet's virtuosic Jorge Barani danced an explosive Flames of Paris pas de deux. Other Cubans returning home included Carlos Quenedit (Houston Ballet), Rolando Sarabia (The Washington Ballet), Milwaukee Ballet's Marize Fumero and Arionel Vargas, Fernando Montaño (The Royal Ballet), Javier Torres (Northern Ballet), Yonah Acosta (Bayerisches Staatsballett) and international guest artists Taras Domitro and Adiarys Almeida.

The audience's ovation after Domitro and Almeida's Black Swan pas de deux was especially memorable: After many curtain calls, Almeida plucked a rose from her bouquet to give to Domitro, and Domitro in turn, tossed it into the audience to the most enthusiastic person shouting "Bravo!"


Sadaise Arencibía in Giselle. Photo by A. Sanguinetti, Courtesy Havana International Ballet Festival.

On a different program, the same pas de deux was danced spectacularly by reigning NBC principal Viengsay Valdes, 42 years old. Her ability to hold a balance in attitude is only outdone by the dramatic artistry of her subtly manic Odile. The Cuban company's other resident artists, such as Grettel Morejón and Dani Hernández's dazzling Kitri and Basilio, and Sadaise Arencibía's incandescent Giselle, are living testimony to the patrimony of training and artistry assiduously crafted by Alicia, Fernando, Alberto and Laura Alonso, which one hopes will survive them as time goes by.

National Ballet of Cuba's World Premiere of Cathy Marston's "Prospera"

Photo by A. Sanguinetti, Courtesy Havana International Ballet Festival.

The festival's spirit of renewal presented itself in a more subdued but no less affecting way in the world premiere of Cathy Marston's Prospera for NBC. The 30-minute ballet, a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, was brought with the help of British Friends of Cuban Ballet. The work was intended as a tribute to Alonso and her leadership role in founding and building the 70-year-old NBC into a world class company. Marston recreates the protagonist Prospero as a female character, Prospera, danced with a compelling authority leavened with sensitivity by Daniela Gomez. Other standouts were Cosme Tablada as Ariel, Daniel Rittoles as Calibán, and Adrián Sánchez as Fernando.

Marston felt heartened by the project's results. "I could see how much the dancers had invested in what was a very different style for them, and how they developed," she said in an interview afterwards, noting that the creative process presented unique challenges. "I don't speak Spanish, so I knew that communication would be tricky, but we worked with body language and I was confident we'd find solutions and that I'd be inspired by both the dancers and the city."

She added that she's received moving messages from the NBC dancers since the premiere. "They are unlike those from dancers elsewhere. It is rare for them to be part of a new creation, and our work together changed something deeply for some of them. This is hugely rewarding for me."

Still, Marston appreciated at least one surprising but advantageous use of modern technology by the Cuban media. "I was able to watch my ballet on national TV the day following its premiere! It was also projected on a big screen outside the theatre. This commitment to 'dance for all' is something I really wish the rest of the world could take heed of!"

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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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