Students As Muses

Larry Keigwin revels in the chance to choreograph in conservatories. “It’s like a working audition,” he says. “I’m introduced to dancers who later can come into my company. I like hiring people after I’ve had experience with them: When you’ve created a piece on somebody, you know how they operate.” Plus, he adds, the extra paychecks don’t hurt.

Professional choreographers have become common inside top ballet conservatories. For Keigwin and other choreographers on this specialized circuit, making new pieces for pre-professional dancers is a win-win situation. The process feeds the artists in ways they don’t always expect. And students graduate from these schools with distinct advantages over their peers: Rather than simply repeating variations that countless dancers have performed before them, learning and participating in the making of a new work helps students pick up choreography faster. They become flexible instruments for dancemakers—and end up as more marketable dancers. 

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet has regularly recruited emerging classical choreographers since 1998 through a program called ChoreoPlan. Alan Hineline, CPYB’s resident choreographer, believes students offer professional dancemakers unique benefits. “If what you need is 16 girls who can look alike based on their training, you’re gonna get it,” he says. “That’s honestly something hard to find in the professional world: a corps that all understands movement from the same place.”

In addition to a uniform style, students also bring energy to the studio. “They’re incredibly attentive, disciplined and focused,” says contemporary choreographer Aszure Barton. “They’re interested in being a part of the creation, in doing something challenging and new.” Barton, who graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto in 1993, says she loves going back to work with its students: “Often the money is not the thing. They help me return to my core essence and my voice—the simplicity of being in a creative environment. I feel enabled and unafraid, and that’s when I make the best work.”

The collaborative process works both ways: Young dancers often grow in new directions after working with visiting dancemakers. Students thrown into CPYB’s choreographic crucible, for instance, sometimes discover capabilities they didn’t know they had. Avichai Scher, who made Of Age for ChoreoPlan 2011, says, “I didn’t know any of the students, so I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what they could do. They had to rise to the level of what I expected the piece to be; I didn’t adjust it for them.” And when Brian Enos made his A Night In The Tropics on CPYB students last year, he says, “After the first showing, one of the instructors said of a student, ‘I’ve never seen her dance like that. She’s such a shy girl.’ The piece showed her talent in a different light.”

It’s not all roses and snowflakes, though, when outsiders encounter students. Darrell Grand Moultrie, a New York–based choreographer who recently made Get in Line at the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, is blunt about the lack of information many students have when they audition for his pieces. “Every school I go to, I ask students to tell me what they know about me,” he says. “Students today don’t know choreographers’ histories before they start working with them. And this generation can find out every credit, all the information in five or 10 minutes online!”

Moultrie teaches students what will be expected of them in the professional world. “I try to give them many secrets, share what is really being said behind the audition table or the choreographer’s chair,” he says. “Sometimes it’s jarring; sometimes it can be really helpful. I teach them about networking. If they represent themselves well, they can come to me later for a recommendation.”

The smart students soak up this information. Texan Lindsey Pitts, 24, loved working with Moultrie at DTH. “He is not afraid to push you,” she says. “He doesn’t just sit in the front calling out directions, but is in the middle of the room with us, running behind us, yelling to travel more. In the end the improvement was amazing. He always told us, ‘Just do it—what are you waiting for?’ He helped me understand the mentality of being fearless when I dance.”

Keigwin, who’s worked on Broadway in addition to running his own troupe, demands flair and personality from ballet students. “I’m introducing new compositional tools,” he says. Kingdom, which he created on students at University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2009, incorporates their contributions into the choreography. “I’m asking them to participate as collaborators in the work, to be improv artists; that might be different from what they’re used to,” Keigwin says. “This is the time to give them those experiences; they’re more available and open to adventurous tasks.”

Students sometimes find surprising interests that lead them in new directions. After working with NBS, Barton found that a number of the students wanted to audition for Aszure Barton & Artists. “Who’d have thought they’d be interested in doing something other than going into a ballet company?” she asks.

Overall, the experience helps dancers more easily transition to the professional world. CPYB artistic director Marcia Dale Weary cites New York City Ballet’s Ashley Bouder as a successful graduate of her program who learned to pick up new choreography quickly. CPYB students, Weary observes, “have worked with so many choreographers that graduates are an asset to a company. They don’t waste time. They’re used to standing in the back and understudying, learning the parts so if someone gets injured they can step right in.” And, unsurprisingly, students who’ve had practice being choreographer’s tools are the ones who later find themselves in lead parts not long after joining the corps.

Catching the Choreography Bug

Visiting artists can have an unexpected impact. CPYB alum Antonio Anacan, 25, now at Eugene Ballet, was feeling hungry for something more at school when Brian Enos came to make a dance. “His movement was so loose; instantly I got sucked into it,” Anacan says. “I’d never choreographed, but I heard a piece of music by a Brazilian guitarist that summed up the last two years of my life. I asked Enos if he could help me. He told me to close my eyes and let the music take me, to make sure to use the floor, move around. I finished the piece in just over a week, and actually got to perform it. I was so lucky that CPYB brought in these choreographers and I got to work with one.” —EZ

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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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