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DTH Takes NYC

In April, Dance Theatre of Harlem will take a break from its first national tour since the company’s relaunch to perform in its hometown, New York. This initial appearance, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, is the first of several high-profile engagements: In June, the company will perform in the Kennedy Center’s “Ballet Across America” series and at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Clearly the iconic American organization is well on the way to fulfilling the five-year rebuilding plan devised by DTH artistic director Virginia Johnson, executive director Laveen Naidu and the board. Johnson emphasizes DTH’s unique artistic legacy in the dance world. Always a multicultural institution, DTH is “still a company of color, but a very diverse company,” Johnson says. “The phrase I like to use is ‘unimagined beauty.’ I think there are so many people who imagine ballet as one thing and black people as another. When you put them together, that’s the beauty that you hadn’t imagined before.”

The current company comprises 18 dancers, hired from the DTH Ensemble, national auditions and the company’s school. The compact troupe (down from 44 dancers in 2004) tours without trucks or scenery and does not have a union contract. “We’re never going to be 44 dancers again,” Johnson says, “but slightly larger than 18 is something I can aim for.” DTH’s 2013 repertoire consists of 12 ballets, including Balanchine’s Agon, the Black Swan pas de deux, Donald Byrd’s Contested Space, Robert Garland’s Gloria and Alvin Ailey’s The Lark Ascending.

The closing of DTH in 2004 didn’t just hurt the company, says Johnson: “It was a tragedy for future dancers of color. A generation of dancers didn’t see DTH and get inspired.” But she feels optimistic that dancers of color will eventually become more visible in ballet companies. “That’s going to change very rapidly—not just because we’re back but because the world is changing.” —Joseph Carman


Millepied’s Controversial POB Appointment
Many expected an étoile from the Nureyev era to be the designated heir, but in the end, an outsider prevailed. After much speculation, it was announced at a press conference in Paris this January that Benjamin Millepied would take over as director of dance of the Paris Opéra Ballet in October 2014. The appointment brings Brigitte Lefèvre’?s nearly two decades at the helm to a close, and opens a new chapter for the company. Millepied will leave the troupe he founded last year, L.A. Dance Project, to move to Paris with his wife, Black Swan star Natalie Portman.

The decision raised some eyebrows: Millepied has never run a large company, and, at 35, is younger than many of POB’s étoiles. The choreographer is also unfamiliar with the company?’s famed style. Born in Bordeaux, Millepied left France to join the School of American Ballet at 16 and went on to dance with New York City Ballet as a principal until 2011. He admitted that he would have much to learn about the POB’?s historic repertoire, with its Nureyev productions and Petit, Béjart and Neumeier classics.

But Millepied also has ideas that could set the venerable institution on a stimulating path. Opera and ballet collaborations are one of them, along with an emphasis on new contemporary choreography using the classical idiom. “I am passionate about ballet,” Millepied said. “I want to open up the company to my generation of classical choreographers.” He also said he would ration his own works in the repertoire and encourage budding choreographers within the company.

At the press conference, Lefèvre stressed the continuity between her term and Millepied?’s plans, adding: “?I didn?’t expect to be so emotional. You’?re young, Benjamin, but it will sort itself out.?” —?Laura Cappelle


Wheeldon’s Triple Play
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is having a very busy spring. In addition to setting his new Cinderella on San Francisco Ballet, he’s making new pieces for New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, and all three works have May premiere dates.

Bay Area audiences have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Cinderella—a co-production with the Dutch National Ballet that had its world premiere last year in Amsterdam—and so have SFB dancers. Wheeldon’s version is principal Maria Kochetkova’s first experience dancing the lead role. “It’s been fascinating bringing her to life,” Kochetkova says. “I feel the way Chris sees Cinderella is very close to how I understand her”—as a girl with more confidence and initiative than the retiring heroines of other ballet versions of the tale. “This Cinderella stands up for herself when her stepmother and sisters mistreat her,” Kochetkova says. “In a way, they know she’s stronger than they are.”

Kochetkova is also enchanted by the ballet’s stage effects, created with the help of puppeteer Basil Twist. “My favorite moment has got to be when Cinderella’s on her way to the ball, and everything and everyone around her transforms in a few seconds,” she says. “It’s actually quite tricky, but it looks so magical.” —Margaret Fuhrer


Ratmansky at ABT
Symphony #9, the energetic first section of Alexei Ratmansky’s new Dmitri Shostakovich trilogy, impressed American Ballet Theatre audiences last fall; during the company’s Metropolitan Opera House season this spring, they’ll finally see the last two acts of the choreographer’s first abstract evening-length ballet. The Met season also includes the company premiere of Sir Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, the return of several classical warhorses and, in June, a new production of Le Corsaire.


McIntyre’s New Fleet Foxes Ballet

Trey McIntyre is known for setting ballets to pop music, frequently choreographing to the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and The Shins. “I think you can actually be lazy choreographing to symphonic music, because there’s so much detail that you can follow as a roadmap,” McIntyre says. “I want to have something to contribute beyond illustrating what a composer has already done. In pop music, the form is simplistic, so I have to bring more of myself to add that next layer.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s American Music Festival program this April offered McIntyre a chance to further explore his pop fascination: He’ll premiere a work set to music by Pacific Northwest–based folk band Fleet Foxes. “When the company asked me to contribute to a program celebrating American music, it made sense to me to use pop songs,” McIntyre says. “It’s my connection to American composers. I haven’t found a contemporary symphonic composer I respond to, so I like to work with the best of American pop instead.”

McIntyre has had the Fleet Foxes in the back of his mind for a while. (He’s used one of their songs in another ballet.) “Their music has this great connection to nature,” he says. “I picture huge open canyons when I listen to it, grand landscapes. I think that sense of space is something that translates well into choreography.” —MF

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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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