Bolshoi Ballet's Nina Kaptsova and Mikhail Lobukhin in "Spartacus." Photo by Elena Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

Do Ballets Have a Life Span?

If you were a subscriber to a respectable repertory theater company, you would never tolerate a diet of lustful Saracen princes, troops of tots running around in blackface, upstart Roman slaves versed in Karl Marx, dark-skinned serving girls with bejeweled navels and superwomen who destroy any man passing their way.

Ballet lovers, however, are more tolerant, too much for my taste. For a few minutes of vivid, occasionally masterful choreography, the devotees of Terpsichore are willing to put up with nonsensical, dated or offensive librettos, and they lose their qualms (if they entered the theater with any) in a flood of tours jetés and grandes pirouettes à la seconde.

Face the fact: Many of the ballets that audiences cherish today have simply aged out. The reasons are both political and social, and the dances that have not adapted to espousing contemporary values somehow look like stale period pieces.

So let's take a stroll through the repertoires of the world's major ballet companies. The certified classics—Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Giselle—survive in some manner relatively unscathed, possibly because they have remained in the repertoire for most of the past century, and have been adjusted by each new generation that confronts the material. Even here, you can find dissenters. Years ago in an interview with Mats Ek, the acclaimed Swedish choreographer surprised me by expressing his distaste for The Sleeping Beauty, because, for him, the libretto's value system extols the ruling hierarchy. Some might argue that Nutcracker possesses racist elements, with its pointed-finger Chinese dance and slithery Arabian number.

Viktoria Tereshkina and artists of the Mariinsky Ballet in "Raymonda." Photo by Natalia Razina, Courtesy Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts.

But then we come to all those relics, mostly from 19th-century Russia. They share a passion for national and religious stereotyping, which should be unacceptable today. Take American Ballet Theatre's Le Corsaire, which, after its revival some years ago, maintains its hold on today's repertoire. The ballet was first staged in France, then it traveled to Russia and the West. The ABT version, containing bits of its predecessors, portrays Turks as slave keepers, and what is even more ignoble, in this fantasy world—Muslims.

Sometime, two centuries ago, adherents of Islam became the most dependable ballet villains. In Raymonda, Abderakhman is not just a believer in Islam (which the 19th-century arts associated with sexual potency), he is aggressively seeking the hand of the pure Christian heroine. That is enough to make him the bad guy. Often, in performances of Raymonda, our response is complicated by the fact that Abderakhman gets the most exciting choreography.

Then, we arrive at La Bayadère, which sums up the era's ambivalent attitude towards Eastern religions. Except for the wonderfully mind-bending “Kingdom of the Shades" act, this Petipa work was unknown in this country until Natalia Makarova staged the complete version opulently for ABT in 1980, then re-created it all over the globe. The principal baddie is a Brahmin high priest, who hungers after temple dancer Nikiya. But the pseudo-Indian dances, filtered through Russian sensibilities, can also be culturally offensive.

If it's any consolation, Rudolf Nureyev's staging of La Bayadère for the Paris Opéra Ballet, with its array of fake skin tones, is even more racially troublesome. Fortunately, the imperishable “Shades" scene, by itself, has entered the repertoire of several major American companies.

Blatant propaganda is another factor that makes ballet age faster than a week-old croissant, and much of it has come from Soviet Russia. Most recent settings of Romeo and Juliet (notably Sir Kenneth MacMillan's) have derived, in some way, from Leonid Lavrovsky's 1940 version of the Shakespeare play. The original wears its political biases with cape-swirling aplomb. The last time I saw this Romeo and Juliet I was a bit shocked. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the company had retained the first-act marketplace episode, in which the slimy aristocrat Tybalt kicks a bunch of poor beggars. The moment is irrelevant to the narrative, but back in the '30s, the episode probably pleased some hack commissar.

However, the master of Soviet propaganda kitsch remains Yury Grigorovich, the choreographer of that raucous 1968 extravaganza Spartacus, with its pounding Khachaturian score. A generation ago, when Bolshoi Ballet visits to America were increasing, we would laugh at the overheated marches, the wiggly dances of the evil Aegina and the crucifixion of Spartacus, while admiring the performances of phenomena like Maris Liepa and the unforgettable Nina Timofeyeva. But their time has passed, and in the era of perestroika, so has the equating of Roman slaves with the Soviet proletariat. Spartacus has not transcended its era.

American Ballet Theatre in a 1973 production of Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo." Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Then, there's that category of works of undoubted artistry, which find themselves at odds with contemporary social customs and standards. Age has simply overtaken them. I hesitated to include Agnes de Mille's 1942 Rodeo, because it was a landmark in American ballet and because of Aaron Copland's rousing score. But feminism has flourished in 2016 America. It is difficult to get excited about a young woman who wants to be both a cowgirl and an object of male desire in an era when Iowa has elected for U.S. Senator the hog-tying Joni Ernst. I'm not alone in my reassessment of the de Mille. The other year, the great millennial dancemaker Justin Peck jettisoned the Rodeo libretto, retained the Copland music and produced an acclaimed ballet.

Fresh take: NYCB dancers in Justin Peck's "Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Speaking of changing gender standards and expectations, it has become increasingly difficult to swallow the dyspeptic, anti-feminist tone of Jerome Robbins' The Cage, where an insect woman destroys all men who cross her path. Sixty-five years after its premiere, it seems sour and unforgiving, one of the great choreographer's pieces that should disappear into the dance history books.

What should keep ballet fresh, young and relevant is historical reassessment, a return to the source, a reconsideration of the social values in which a ballet emerged and a canny fusion with our contemporary values and standards. Yes, I am talking about Alexei Ratmansky. He transformed a propaganda show like The Bright Stream into a warm, humane farce, and he continues to reimagine the standard dance repertoire. It can be done. Look to Ratmansky for more ageless experiences on the ballet stage.

Old also meets new brilliantly in Sir Frederick Ashton's 1960 comic masterpiece, La Fille mal gardée. Ashton turned a rustic 1789 French tale into a timeless survey of life and love in the French (really English) countryside. He started with all the stock figures of classic farce (young lovers, disapproving mother, village simpleton, etc.) and imbued all of them with such humanity that La Fille will never date. The characters exude internal life and that should keep them fresh forever.

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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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