Dancer Spotlight: Swan In The Making

For a dancer who looks so at ease in the air, 19-year-old April Giangeruso earns compliments that could be mis­taken for complaints: “She’s got both feet on the ground,” or “She’s well-grounded.” Now an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre, Giangeruso has always had exceptional focus. The praise from admiring teachers and coaches is a tribute to her unswerving dedication to meeting ballet’s stern demands.

 

As a child, Giangeruso wasted no time getting to work. At age 5, after seeing her first performance of Swan Lake, she informed her parents that she wanted to be a dancer. “I loved taking class,” she says. “The studio was like a second home for me.” At 9, having exhausted the training opportunities offered in her hometown, Ellicott City, Maryland, she transferred to the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., studying under a full scholarship from 2001 to 2005. She then moved to New York City, acquiring more Russian training from Valentina Kozlova, and became, at 15, the youngest female finalist at the 2006 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.

 

Many young women her age would be eager to earn more medals, but not Giangeruso. “I wasn’t interested in entering competitions; working on a solo for one or two years did not appeal to me. That’s not what ballet is about.” Returning to Maryland to become an all-American teenager and join a class of graduating seniors was ruled out as well. (One reason: She had found the time to graduate from high school two years early.) Asked if she resented ballet’s depriving her of the rite—and some would say the rights—of girlhood, she says, “No. I love ballet. Dance class also got me out of having to take P.E.”

 

Attending American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives as a National Training Scholar was a more practical use of her energies after her Jackson triumph. She had no difficulty qualifying for admission to ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2007, but she didn’t stay there long. Within four months, she was taken into ABT II. She has been dancing professionally ever since, doing everything from fusion ensembles to excerpts from the classics. At 5’7”, she already possesses the long, unfolding line essential for the Act II Swan Lake pas de deux, as she demonstrated last April in ABT II’s New York City performances. Through an effortless musicality, she revealed Odette’s tremulous but trusting nature, an unusual accomplishment in someone so young. 

 

ABT II artistic director Wes Chapman describes her as the easiest young dancer he’s ever worked with: “She can do almost any style, even contemporary, and anything she doesn’t get right away, she works on until she does. She’s already well on her way to performing the double role in Swan Lake. Giving up is not an option with her.”

 

For Giangeruso, attitude covers more than just a step you practice in class and perform onstage. Attitude is also what you bring to class and to performance. “I know dancers who approach class as a time to work only on steps they already do well,” she says. “Those are what you practice. What you work on is whatever you can’t do now, frustrating as it is to repeatedly look less than your best. And don’t be discouraged if the person next to you looks really great. Class is the time for competition. Enjoy it.”

 

“I love jumps,” she continues, “but they don’t come as easy as pirouettes and adagio. Jumping from a dead stop is really hard, so that’s what I concentrate on, no matter what I look like doing it. I don’t beat myself up if I’m not perfect. Practice makes less imperfect, someone said.”

 

If that sounds somewhat philosophical, well, philosophy is what Giangeruso happens to be studying at Long Island University when she has the time. Attending college is a logical step for a dancer to take. “With ballet you never know what the future holds,” she says. Both feet on the ground, as usual.

 

At A Glance
Name: April Giangeruso
Age: 19
Company: ABT
Training: Kirov Academy of Ballet, Valentina Kozlova, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School
Favorite Ballet: Swan Lake
Dream Role: Odette/Odile

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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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