Classic Beauty

No role defines classical ballet more than Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. She embodies both youthful innocence and elegant majesty. Although cursed to sleep for eternity, Aurora has an inner radiance that proves too strong for the evil spell. Prince Désiré’s saving kiss—the symbol of true love—awakens the princess from her slumber and marks her initiation into womanhood. Her Act III wedding variation conveys both her love for Désiré and her newfound maturity, and it must be danced with the technical assurance expected of royalty.
   
Strong Delicacy 
“The character of Aurora is so sweet and pure,” says Anna-Marie Holmes, The School at Jacob’s Pillow’s ballet program director. Holmes was coached in the role by Russian greats Natalia Dudinskaya and Bronislava Nijinska, and has staged Sleeping Beauty at companies around the world. “It’s very delicate dancing, but very precise.” The variation should look light and effortless, but to achieve that, there must be substantial power behind the dancer’s movement. “You need strong technique—and a very strong center.”

 

Create the illusion of daintiness with Aurora’s noble épaulement and port de bras. “Hold the arms strong from the little wings in your back, and never let go of your core,” says Holmes, stressing that your arms should always transition through first position. Sleeping Beauty was originally choreographed in 1890, so the port de bras style must be unembellished to reflect that time. “This is Petipa choreography,” says Holmes. “Keep the elbows held, not collapsed.”

From Smooth to Staccato
As the variation progresses, you have to shift both your energy and the tempo. Early on, Aurora performs a series of smooth piqué arabesques traveling backward on the diagonal. The challenge is to stay in control and on your leg throughout the sequence, looking as though you could balance a glass of water on your head. “Keep your body very square with the supporting heel forward on pointe,” says Holmes. “Never let the standing leg turn in.” From the last arabesque, immediately close fifth to prepare for a series of bright sissones. While the pliés should be controlled between jumps, try not to get bogged down. “Think up and light, not down and heavy,” says Holmes.

 

The variation begins to accelerate toward the manége at the end. The final turns are a balancing act between speed and control. “The turns should be calm and rounded, not rushed or circusy looking,” says Holmes. “But on the développé à la secondes, the leg should get to its height immediately.” For the piqué and soutenu turns at the end, think of staying compact to avoid spinning out. “The feet should be quick—keep the turns tight and precise.”

Weightless Walks On Pointe
The series of walks on pointe, in which Aurora luxuriously pas de chevals her foot while simultaneously circling her arms and wrists, is perhaps the variation’s most memorable moment. But coordinating the arms and feet can be a bit like rubbing your stomach while patting your head. “Dancers often get very stiff here,” says Holmes. “They have to feel the movement and coordinate it.” For the upper body, Holmes stresses that the port de bras has a very specific path. “The arms come up to fifth, open and come down. You can’t just improvise any position you want. Think of very rounded and full, circular movements from below the elbow, not short and jerky.”

 

Below the tutu, Holmes emphasizes having a feeling of weightlessness in the feet. “When you walk on pointe, try not to slam your foot on the floor. Have a mental image of walking on eggshells or glass,” she says. “We should hear no sound.”

Find Your Inner beauty
Sleeping Beauty is a coming-of-age story. We watch Aurora grow up before our eyes, and the Act III variation should reflect her emotional development. “She grows from a sweet girl to a lovely young woman,” says Holmes. “She shouldn’t have a 16-year-old’s expression on her face anymore. She should be calm and beautiful, as if glowing on the inside.”

 

Aurora is now also very much in love and celebrating her wedding day. But always remember her royal background—think more aristocratic reserve than unbridled passion. “Aurora is not a peasant girl like Giselle,” says Holmes. “She is of noble birth.” Her choreography is classical ballet at its most pure.

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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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