Isaac Hernánandez as Lázaro in the new Netflix series "Alguien Tiene Que Morir" ("Someone Has to Die")

Courtesy Netflix

Isaac Hernández Makes His Netflix Debut in New Thriller Miniseries

Listen to interviews with Isaac Hernández and one thing becomes resoundingly clear: He is on a mission to normalize ballet in his native Mexico. As a lead principal of the English National Ballet and the first Mexican recipient of the coveted Benois de la Danse (deemed the Academy Awards of ballet), he has made tremendous strides towards this goal. His successful gala Despertares ("Awakenings"), which he created with his brother, San Francisco Ballet principal Esteban Hernández, brought people in droves to Mexico City's National Auditorium to watch some of the world's top dancers perform. Now he's bringing ballet to the small screen in a three-episode miniseries on Netflix entitled "Alguien Tiene Que Morir" ("Someone Has to Die") premiering on October 16. (Be advised that the show contains mature content that may not be appropriate for younger viewers.)

Set in 1950s Spain, the story begins with a young man, summoned by his parents, returning home from Mexico to meet the fiancée they have chosen for him. However, people are surprised when he is accompanied by Lázaro, a mysterious ballet dancer, played by Hernández. This throws everyone for a loop in the conservative, traditional society where appearances and family ties are everything.

During a recent visit to Moscow, Hernández spoke with Pointe by phone about the series, his future acting plans and his efforts to make ballet more accessible.

Bringing Ballet to the Masses

Hernández invited the show's director and creator, Manolo Caro, to a performance of Despertares a few years ago. The experience opened up Caro's curiosity about the careers of professional dancers and Hernández's work promoting ballet in Mexico. While ENB was on tour in Chicago performing Akram Khan's Giselle last year, Hernández received a call from Caro informing him that he had been working on a new script. He thought it would be interesting if the character of Lázaro was a dancer and the show could explore the negative perceptions towards artists, particularly dancers, during the 1950s.

"I thought this was a great opportunity to bring ballet to a platform like Netflix that provides us with an audience of millions of people," recalled Hernández. "I read the script and I liked Lázaro a lot. He reminded me of my younger self and I felt a lot of empathy for him."

Becoming Lázaro

Hernández hadn't taken any formal acting lessons and was surprised that the cast would include some of the hottest stars in the Latin entertainment industry, including Carmen Maura, Cecilia Suárez, Ester Expósito and Alejandro Speitzer. He found that acting has a lot of parallels to how he approaches dancing.

"I got the script months in advance and had two weeks of rehearsals when I arrived in Madrid, so that made a huge difference," said Hernández. "I prepared as best as possible by reading the script over and over again. I learned that you are basically 'dancing' with the other actor; you are receiving from them and then reacting. That's actually the way I like to dance."

When it came to the dancing scenes, Caro gave Hernández artistic freedom to incorporate ballet throughout the story. They went so far as to research ballet magazines from the 1950s to replicate the outfits that dancers were wearing at the time and even found old-fashioned ballet slippers. Hernández wanted to feature some of the most emblematic dance scenes he saw in movies or as a young kid. Ballet fans will be able to enjoy snippets from classics like Don Quixote, Carmen and Le Jeune homme et la mort.

Two men in brown jackets are shown talking closely in the front seat of a green 1950s-style car.

Hernández with co-star Alejandro Speitzer in a scene from "Alguien Tiene Que Morir"("Someone Has to Die")

Courtesy Netflix

Making Ballet Relevant

Hernández is excited to see the audience's reaction. "I can't imagine the amount of people that will watch this project," he said. "It will allow people to see a different version of a ballet dancer and also raise important questions in this macho culture we still have in Mexico. I want them to see that ballet is a profession and a dignified way to make a living."

While "Alguien Tiene Que Morir" is Hernández's TV debut, he also has a movie in the works (with more dancing!) called El Rey de Todo el Mundo ("The King of the Whole World"). The film is tentatively set to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2021 and is directed by esteemed Spanish director Carlos Saura.

Hernández hopes to dive further into acting in the future.

"I think this is an opportunity to make ballet more accessible. I found myself lucky that I like interpreting ballet in a more cinematic way," said Hernández.

He acknowledges that the ballet world is in a challenging place right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but offers a message of hope, particularly for young dancers.

"Don't give up. The future of ballet will depend on you," said Hernández. "It is up to us to keep this passion alive and continue to find new ways to make ballet an essential part of the cultural life anywhere in the world."

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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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