From left: Houston Ballet dancers Bridget Kuhns, Jacquelyn Long and Mackenzie Richter on the shoot of Stanton Welch's Restoration.

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Behind the Scenes of "Restoration," Houston Ballet's New Dance Film

The hidden gift of the coronavirus pandemic is that artists are discovering and exploring new avenues of expression. For choreographers, that means film. On November 10, Houston Ballet premiered artistic director Stanton Welch's Restoration, a new digital work for 62 dancers shot at 19 iconic Houston sites. Set to the song "Black Lung," by The Dead South, Restoration is now available for free on the company's Facebook, Instagram and YouTube platforms.

The title refers to the company's journey back to work after this year's extended layoff. And while it may still be a while before we see Houston Ballet on the Wortham Theater Center stage, the dancers have returned on a different set of terms: wearing masks, social distancing and dancing their hearts out with Texas-sized gusto.

"The film is about determination and refocusing ourselves to come back to work," says Welch. "We are marching forward from all over the city, until we are back in our building in the studio. It's our restoration." And, indeed, the film opens with soloist Alyssa Springer charging down a brick path under a luxurious canopy of live-oak trees and ends with her dressed for work in the studio.

Welch, a self-confessed film geek, had success in July with his jubilant video, Dancing with Myself, choreographed on the dancers over Zoom and set to the Billy Idol song of the same title. David Rivera, the company's associate director of audio and visual services, edited everyone's clips together.

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet artists in Stanton Welch's Restoration

For Restoration, it was time to leave the dancers' living rooms and jump head-first into the city. "We specifically looked for green spaces, hoping people from outside of Houston would be wowed by our lush vegetation," says Rivera, who did the film's camera operation and editing. "We also looked for recognizable locations so Houstonians would know this film is also for them."

And Restoration does a great job of showing off the city, including shots at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Menil Collection; Galveston beaches; and the reflecting pool at the Hermann Park Conservancy. "We were ready to move away from the iconic skyline and Wortham Center to the best-kept secret of the city, which are all these green, eclectic and artsy places," says Welch. "We want to imprint a side of Houston that people might not know."

Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet staff member and artists during the shoot of Stanton Welch's Restoration.

As for the music, Welch found the tone for the moment in Canadian bluegrass band The Dead South. Their raspy vocals, gothic storytelling and retro style were a good fit for Welch's own choreographic signature. "Black Lung" addresses the grind of labor, specifically in the mines, yet the tune also exudes a high-energy tempo. "It was the song's relentless quality and the rhythm of walking that makes it feel like a march," says Welch. "It's like an anthem that means, 'We can roll up our sleeves and do it.'"

Rivera sees Restoration, which was filmed in October, as a huge step up from Dancing with Myself, which was shot by dancers on their phones. "We were able to push production values and have total control of the composition of each shot," says Rivera. "We also went into filming with very detailed shot planning, including the angle of the sun and other lighting details. The entire process was super-structured and organized."

Soloist Jacquelyn Long—who appears in scenes at the McGovern Centennial Gardens, Discovery Green and more—treasured the filming experience. "I actually got to work in the studio, with Stanton in the front of the room and me at the back," says Long. "It felt very safe." Follow-up rehearsals were conducted online, since the company is now adept at learning via Zoom.

Long describes the choreography as earthy, human and even a tiny bit pedestrian. "It feels good on our bodies, very grounded," says Long. "It's a very personal piece—we are wearing our own clothes, which we hand-picked for the filming." Some dancers are decked out in their party dresses, others in their sleek workout clothes. And due to the array of surfaces, there isn't a pointe shoe in sight.

One of the final shots reveals the entire company spread out on a soccer field; drone footage amplifies the dancers' power. "It felt so great to be out there in front of everyone, showing off Stanton's choreographic strengths, all together and in unison," says Long. "This is our show, this is our home, this is our city. We are here to stay."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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