The Style Debate

Choosing the right preprofessional program means thinking about the dancer you want to be. Stephanie Chrosniak, a member of New York City Ballet’s corps, trained at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet for 12 years. During her early years at the school, she focused on founder Marcia Dale Weary’s hybrid of the Vaganova syllabus and American ideas. Then when her technical base was solid, she sampled different styles of ballet from guest teachers. Meanwhile, Caroline Bird, who studied in her teen years at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, focused solely on traditional Vaganova technique. She now dances with the Staatsballett Berlin. Both women easily secured jobs with internationally renowned companies.

 

So which path is correct? Should you study only one technique, or expose yourself to a variety of styles? A dancer who studies a single approach, like Balanchine technique, will have a strong grounding in it and might fit more easily in a company with that style. On the other hand, a dancer who learns several techniques could gravitate to a company with a more diverse repertoire without facing a steep learning curve.

 

Are there benefits beyond the job hunt to studying one technique—or several? Does focusing on one technique give a dancer an edge in terms of technical strength? What about learning new choreography? Does versatility mean a greater facility with new movement? Do you sacrifice clarity and expressiveness when you have too many styles to choose among? The answers can shape your training, and ultimately your career.

Fundamentals versus Range

Bird feels being able to focus on a single style made her stronger. “Having the opportunity to completely immerse myself in one technique was best for my mind and body because I didn’t waste muscle and mental energy getting confused about the proper way to attack a step,” she says.

 

Some teachers feel that learning different techniques can make it difficult for students who need a foundation before they can truly develop. “I don’t believe in ‘style’ when training young dancers,” says Martin Fredmann, the Kirov Academy’s deputy artistic director. “Sound technique is the only basis. ‘Style’ comes with being an advanced student and learning a choreographer’s choreography. Having a mix of different teachers, each teaching a so-called different ‘style,’ undermines the essential basis of ballet that must be understood in its most elemental form. And what is ‘style’ but a certain choreographer’s idea?”

 

Yet many dancers thrive in a varied approach. “I would definitely say that training with different styles can help you gain success as a dancer,” Chrosniak says. Parrish Maynard, who teaches at the San Francisco Ballet School (where teachers are given latitude to teach their own styles with a core Vaganova curriculum), believes that studying only one approach undermines a dancer’s education. “We get students from all over the world,” says Maynard. “They come stuck in one way and we have to spend so much time getting them to understand how to shape their bodies differently. I tell them styles are like jackets. You put them on and take them off.” 

The Adaptability Debate
How does each type of training prepare a dancer for picking up choreography? Alan Hineline, resident choreographer of CPYB, feels no training, however varied, can fully prepare a dancer to go into a company and dance the variety of styles that even one repertory program might call for, like Balanchine, Taylor and Tharp. “The importance of the preparation is in being emotionally open to new styles so that you can easily adapt,” he says. Company schools tend to train dancers with the company’s repertoire in mind. According to Maynard, “SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson wants students going into the company looking very classically oriented but with a contemporary edge.” Repertoire classes taught at the school include excerpts from ballets by choreographers like Balanchine, but also William Forsythe and Jirí Kylián.

 

A company that frequently performs one choreographer’s work—like Miami City Ballet, which has long given Balanchine a special place in their repertoire—might train dancers to that aesthetic. Edward Villella, the company’s artistic director and faculty chair of the Miami City Ballet School, developed his
curriculum based on his experiences as a Balanchine dancer at New York City Ballet, and his work with legendary School of American Ballet teacher Stanley Williams. “What Balanchine had was a 19th-century approach and then he invented on that and made his own manner and style,” says Villella. “I continue that investigation—the rhythms and the syncopations. It is an amalgamation that I received from brilliant people.”

 

For Villella, Balanchine technique provides a foundation for both classic and contemporary work. “We all come from the 19th-century technique,” says Villella. “Balanchine was a genius after Petipa who made his own approach to prepare you for the classic works. Once you dance Balanchine, it’s much easier to go back to the 19th century. What’s really difficult is when you only have the 19th century and you try to achieve Balanchine.”

Jeopardizing Purity?
Facility with new choreography aside, does a pure classical style suffer from being diluted with too many teachers? Maynard thinks not. “Nobody dances just one way anymore,” he says. “I was recently working with The Royal Ballet School, setting a piece that I’d choreographed for SFB. The first thing the school director said to me was, ‘They have to look more American. They look too British.’ The Royal Ballet said that to me!”

 

And which strategy helps the most in getting a job? “Of course there is no disadvantage for a dancer knowing different techniques in finding work, and it may be an advantage in some cases,” says the Kirov Academy’s Fredmann. “But in the long run, it’s the traditionally trained dancer who is the most durable, adaptable and least accident-prone.”

 

But like tends to draw like. Bird sought out a company that focused on the classical full-lengths. “Being surrounded by teachers who had thrived in and around the European dance world put European companies on a pedestal for me,” she says.

 

Maynard believes that ballet isn’t immune to change, and that extends to training. “Most directors these days say that dancers have to be more well-rounded as artists,” he explains. “Dance has evolved. Teachers and students need to evolve with it.” SFB takes most of its dancers from its school, but the school has placed dancers in many other companies, like American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre and the National Ballet of Canada. Currently there are more than 65 graduates of CPYB dancing professionally in national and international companies. Kirov Academy alumni dance in many companies, too; nearly half of the dancers in Miami City Ballet attended its school.

 

In the end, the type of technique you choose to study can help determine which type of company you end up dancing in—one that heavily favors the classics or a particular choreographer versus one with a more versatile repertoire. It’s up to the student to choose the path that best suits her.

Joseph Carman, author of Round About The Ballet, is a frequent contributor to Pointe.

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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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