Training Ground

In The Wings: Jenna Nelson

 

At Pacific Northwest Ballet School

 

By Rosie Gaynor

 

Folks don’t always notice Jenna Nelson right off the bat. She has what Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal Abbie Siegel calls “a quiet strength.” It’s a steadfast presence that doesn’t beg for attention.

 

Once you spot her, though, she’s riveting. At 17, her movement is already sophisticated and crystalline. Her head knows exactly where to go, and her shoulders are starting to follow suit. She brings exceptional control and generosity to her long développés. Her frappés shoot straight out, precise, strong and yet somehow dainty. You’d never guess that she began dancing only six years ago.

 

Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB and a teacher at the school, speaks of Nelson’s refinement, line, fluidity—and her feet: “Jenna has found where her arch is strong. When she uses her feet well, they’re pretty much textbook.”

 

Nelson didn’t start out dreaming about ballet. She grew up playing soccer, and when she was 12, she signed up for ballet class with friends just for fun. It wasn’t long before she realized she loved it—or before her teacher sent her on to PNBS. The commute to Seattle proved impractical, however, so Nelson joined Evergreen City Ballet Academy, studying with former PNB dancers Wade Walthall and Julie Tobiason. But PNBS never lost track of Nelson, and they invited her to attend their summer programs. In the fall of 2008, Nelson made the leap to training at PNB full-time in their two-year Professional Division program, a step Tobiason facilitated by offering Nelson a room in her own home.

 

Technique reigns at PNBS, with a syllabus that emphasizes Balanchine but also trains dancers for the demands of contemporary ballet work. This suits Nelson, who prefers classical ballets but also dreams of performing Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. The school shares a building with the com­pany, so there are multiple opportunities to learn through observation, including occasional participation in company class. Students perform with PNB as well. In 2009, Nelson danced three corps roles in Nutcracker, and also joined the com­pany in Swan Lake, Symphony in C and West Side Story Suite.

 

Nelson’s schedule is a ballet student’s dream—if you gloss over the seven online courses she is taking to finish high school. After technique from 9:30 to 11:00 am comes an hour or so of pointe, variations, modern or partnering. (Recent variations have included excerpts from Études and The Four Temper­aments.) A second technique class starts at 3:30, unless there’s a rehearsal.

 

What keeps Nelson focused in the competitive ballet world? “I try to stay concentrated on what I want,” she says, “and not to think about things too much but just enjoying dancing.”

At A Glance:
Pacific Northwest Ballet School

 

Founded: 1974
Director: Peter Boal
Past Directors: Janet Reed (1974–75), Melissa Hayden (1976), Francia Russell (1977–2005)
Technique Taught: Various, with an emphasis on Balanchine; syllabus designed to meet the eclectic demands of dance companies today
Classes Offered: Classical ballet technique, modern, pointe, variations, partnering
Number of Students: 950
Alumni in the Past 10 Years: Ballet Frankfurt, Boston Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Suzanne Farrell Ballet, The Washington Ballet, among others
Focus: PNBS’ goal is to provide a healthy environment, inspiration and education. Dancers receive life-skills seminars, physical and nutritional guidance, performance opportunities and the chance to observe PNB members in their daily class, in rehearsals and in performance. The school flies in directors from 10–12 other companies each year to audition Professional Division students.
Website: www.pnb.org/PNBSchool

 

 

Student Opportunities

 

From YAGP to Degree
Youth America Grand Prix is now offering a new perk for finalists: the chance to audition for several top college dance departments at once. Representatives from such prestigious programs as Indiana University and Juilliard now attend the final round of YAGP to scout for talented high school seniors. Some even accept dancers and offer scholarships on the spot.

 

“I’d like to change the stereotype that you have to choose between a professional career in dance or college,” says University of Utah’s Department of Ballet professor Regina Zarhina, who heads the initiative. “If you look at job advertisements, most companies aren’t looking to hire very young and inexperienced dancers anymore.”

 

The program, which launched in 2009, includes an information session on dancing in college and each participating dance department presents information on their school. Dancers then take a combined audition class, which includes ballet, pointe and a short jazz section. For more information, go to www.yagp.org. You can also learn about each of the participating dance departments on DanceU101.com.
—Jennifer Stahl

Good Graces
Winning a prestigious award is not only an opportunity for trophies, money and exposure. A win from a respected organization, such as the Princess Grace Foundation–USA, can provide opportunities that stretch far beyond the awards ceremony and into your professional career.

 

Princess Grace Award recipients not only get a boost on their resumés, they are also welcomed into a fraternity of artists and professionals. In addition to opportunities to network with all of the other winners since 1984, financial assistance is available—for life. “We offer winners assistance for special
projects and residencies,” says Toby E. Boshak, executive director of PGF–USA. “They can use the advantages throughout their career.”

 

For students, an award from PGF–USA can change their fate when they step into the professional world. “There is a level of prestige that goes along with the honor of winning a Princess Grace Award,” says Boshak.

 

Alexander Peters, 18, won in 2008 after the faculty at the School of American Ballet nominated him for the award. “I haven’t begun my professional career as a dancer yet,” he says, “but I have the award bolded at the top of my résumé and hope it will help open the door to some great opportunities in the future.” 

 

Students in preprofessional, not-for-profit dance schools or undergraduate dance departments as well as professionals who have been a member of their company for less than five years are welcome to enter. Candidates must submit a joint application with their school or company, which can only nominate one dancer per year. The judging panel, made up of top dance professionals and artistic directors, chooses five or six winners in the dance performance category each year. Student winners receive a scholarship that covers one year of tuition at their school. Professional dancers are given one year of salary at their company. Applications are due by April 30. They can be found at www.pgfusa.com.
—Katie O’Connell

Dancing With Pros

Few student dancers are given the opportunity to learn new ballets alongside professionals. But last fall, the Rockville, Maryland–based American Dance Institute launched the ADI Chamber Ballet to give students a chance to do just that.

 

Directed by former American Ballet Theatre dancer Pamela Bjerknes, the company commissions up-and-coming choreographers to set and create their work on the students, who are joined by current dancers from The Washington Ballet.

 

“During my performing career, I watched how it always took new company members a year or two to understand how to work with a professional choreographer,” says resident choreographer Runqiao Du, a former dancer with TWB and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. “You have to learn not to be afraid of dancing with the full-on kind of attack that choreographers demand.”

 

The company’s next performance is scheduled for April 10, with original choreography by Du and TWB dancer Jared Nelson. For more information, visit www.americandance.org. —JS


TIP: How do you stay in top form during spring recital season?
Pace yourself: If you try it 1,000 times today, tomorrow you’ll be too sore to dance. Steady work will get you better results. And once you leave the studio, get your mind off ballet so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. When I’m doing a difficult role, I?need space away from it so I?can focus once I’m in the studio. 
—Maggie Small, Richmond Ballet dancer 

 

 

Capturing Kitri

 

Inside a coaching session with Elena Kunikova

 

By Amy Brandt

 

Don Quixote’s Kitri—feisty, independent and free-spirited—explodes with personality from the moment she leaps onstage. Fiercely stubborn, she and Basilio cleverly plot to marry against her father’s wishes. While Kitri is no demure princess, she displays a proud elegance uniquely her own. The Grand Pas de Deux in Act III is the ballet’s highlight, and Kitri’s variation, with its intricate pointework, fluttering fan and Spanish flavor, gives dancers a wonderful opportunity to explore their individuality. 

 

As a former ballerina with the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Elena Kunikova performed Kitri’s Act III variation many times. She now coaches professionals in the role, including American Ballet Theatre’s Irina Dvorovenko, New York City Ballet’s Ana Sophia Scheller and the male divas of Les Ballets Trockadero. She recently shared her expertise on mastering some of the difficult moments.

Spanish Port de Bras
One of the variation’s biggest challenges lies in its stylized port de bras. “Character dance is not widely taught in the West,” Kunikova says, “so many young dancers don’t know how to move their arms with Spanish flair.” Dancers often place their hands on their hips by pulling their elbows back and sticking out their wrists. “I call it ‘chicken wings,’ ” says Kunikova. “Instead, the palm should be delicately placed on top of the tutu, not grabbing the hip. The wrist should be pressed down and the elbow should be pushed slightly forward (make sure to keep your chest open) while the fingers sustain an elegant classical form.” Each time the arms transition from the hips to second position (and in reverse), they must pass through first position. 

 

Kunikova stresses the importance of coordinating the head with the rest of your body. For instance, she says, “It looks more impressive to look up on the développé à la seconde. Then, look lower during the passés while possibly fanning yourself. It gives more diversity and amplitude to the steps.”

Proper Fan Position
Manipulating the fan presents another challenge. “Rehearse the variation using just the port de bras, without dancing, to incorporate the fan without worrying about what’s happening from the waist down,” Kunikova says. She notes that dancers shouldn’t rest their elbow against the body when holding the fan. Initiate slower, larger fan movements with the elbow, but use the wrist to
create quick, small flutters. For added security, dancers can attach the fan to their wrist with an elastic band.

 

The fan can help build tension and excitement through the variation, like during the échappé section. “You might keep it low in front of your chest for the first set,” says Kunikova, “then gradually add port de bras on the second and third sets to show the combination’s progression.”

The Final Footwork
The variation’s final section—a series of alternating hops on pointe across the stage (called taqueté in French)—is its trickiest. The hopping foot must maintain a cupped shape to properly support the body. “It’s the only moment in ballet vocabulary when we have to make the foot ugly,” says Kunikova. Keep your weight on the supporting leg to control balance, using a shallow plié. Engaging opposition in the legs and shoulders is very characteristic for Spanish-styled ballet, and it accentuates the body’s position changes.

Exploring Kitri’s Character

Kunikova sees many avenues of artistic interpretation. “Kitri’s character can be quite different,” she says. “She could be proud, playful, willful or humorous.” However, dancers should avoid trying to appear sultry. “I call it the ‘Black Swan impersonation.’ Too much sultriness, especially for younger dancers, isn’t appropriate or true to their age.” Keep in mind that the variation is part of Kitri’s wedding celebration. “She should be joyous!”

 

While Kitri’s variation allows for lots of individual expression, Kunikova advises young students first learning the dance to avoid overloading it with too many details. “Instead,” she says, “keep it simple and clear.” Flourishes can be added later with experience and practice.
 



   

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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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