Take Your Tendus Overseas

Sean Stewart
Corps de Ballet, American Ballet Theatre
Attended: Paris Opéra Ballet School

As a 16-year-old member of Joffrey II, then based in New York, California native Sean Stewart already had experience living away from home. But he’d always dreamed of attending the Paris Opéra Ballet School, so after two years with the second company, he sent an audition video. They accepted him, and he spent the summer eagerly brushing up on his high school French.


But once in Paris, Stewart felt overwhelmed. “Moving to New York was scary enough, but it was nothing like this,” he says. His French classes left him unprepared for everyday conversation, slang and regional accents.


Stewart lived in the school’s dormitory during the week and with a host family on weekends. As the only American, he found himself very popular among his classmates. “Everyone was curious to get to know me,” he says. “They were fascinated with American culture, especially music.”


Yet Stewart’s transition at the school wasn’t easy. “It’s not the same training system in Europe,” he says, where schools are often state funded and have a national syllabus. “In the U.S., it’s a little more hodge-podge, so dancers are more individualistic.”


The French system stresses proper placement from the very beginning. Young students spend their first years never leaving the barre. “If I had stood at the barre for two years I would’ve killed myself,” says Stewart. “But I felt at a disadvantage for not having basic placement.” The Paris Opéra teaches students to place their torso more forward, creating a slightly concave stomach. “It makes a very accessible path for using turnout,” he says, “but if you haven’t trained that way it feels so awkward.”


His teachers, not sure what to do with him, frequently lost patience. “The French are very opinionated about what is the ‘right way,’ ” says Stewart. “My teachers didn’t understand how someone could do a step differently.” Frustrated, he began to hide in the back. He gained 25 pounds and even contemplated quitting. At the end of the year he returned home with mixed emotions. “It was an amazing experience,” he says, “but I needed an emotional nap.”


Looking back, Stewart says his time in Paris pushed him out of his comfort zone and forced him to become more independent. He also enjoyed traveling and became fluent in French. “You gain a lot when you go through a difficult time,” he says. “It was the beginning of many journeys to discovering myself as a dancer.”

Elizabeth Mason
Principal, Stuttgart Ballet
Attended: John Cranko School

When a teacher from the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, Germany, approached Elizabeth Mason one summer and asked her to audition for the school, she jumped at the chance. “Stuttgart Ballet’s director, Reid Anderson, also directs the school,” says Mason, who was a resident student at the Kirov Academy in Washington, DC, at the time. “Since the Kirov Academy doesn’t have a company affiliation, I thought this might be a good opportunity to get a job.”


Mason had a hard time adjusting at first. Her ballet teacher spoke German, yet because there were so many nationalities in the studio, class was sometimes conducted in English and Russian. “But outside the studio, things like shopping or dealing with my visa were really tough,” says Mason. “Eventually I learned enough to get by.” Meeting new people wasn’t easy either. “Americans are more willing to talk to strangers. Here they look at you like you’re crazy.”


Mason was taken aback by Germany’s organization. “Everything—where you live, work and study—has to be registered with the state,” she says. Despite the paperwork, she appreciated the bureaucratic efficiency. And she liked that Germans know how to relax. “They take advantage of their holidays and vacation,” she says. “It’s a different way of living.”


Her schedule was rigorous, with a two- to three-hour ballet class each morning, followed by repertoire and then either pas de deux, modern or character. She spent her evenings in academic classes. Luckily, she found the school’s Vaganova-based training very similar to what she was used to.


But here she could observe company dancers up close. “We’d get free tickets to the performances,” she says. “I learned a lot just by watching the company members. It helped me transition from dancing like a student to dancing like a professional.”


After two years at the school, Mason accepted an apprenticeship offer without hesitation. “I was very comfortable with the company,” she says. “I felt I could eventually rise to the top.” The Stuttgart Ballet works year-round, unlike many American companies. And although she misses her family, for now she loves living in Europe. “It’s so easy to travel to other countries, and there’s so much culture here,” she says. “The ballet is basically sold out every show, so we feel very appreciated.”

Greta Hodgkinson
Principal, National Ballet of Canada
Attended: Canada’s National Ballet School

Greta Hodgkinson was only 10 when she and her parents began looking into professional ballet schools. The Rhode Island native had her heart set on moving to New York City, but her parents, unwilling to send her there alone, convinced her to try the National Ballet School’s summer program in Toronto. Impressed with the year-round living accommodations and academic and dance programs, they felt comfortable when she was invited to stay in Canada full-time.


However, Hodgkinson was extremely homesick. “I’d never even been to overnight camp and here I was on my own at boarding school,” she says. It took a few months to settle in. She had to adjust to the school’s Cecchetti syllabus, which involved learning set exercises and passing grueling proficiency exams. “I hadn’t trained in any real method,” she says, “so learning a whole syllabus was very different for me.” A prodigious student (so much so that the school advanced her a grade), she was used to dancing more difficult steps, but the Cecchetti method’s simple style exposed weaknesses in her technique. “It was very basic,” she says. “We would only do more difficult things in variations class.”


Luckily, cultural differences were minor. “Toronto is predominantly English-speaking, so I didn’t have to learn a different language,” she says, although French was mandatory in school. “Mostly they made fun of my Rhode Island accent.”


Hodgkinson graduated at 16 and immediately joined NBC. “I knew the company and loved the repertoire,” she says. “I didn’t need to think much about it.”


Not only did Hodgkinson make lifelong friendships, she feels she became a stronger person. “I learned how to be independent in a very nurturing place,” she says. “You grow up fast when you’re in that situation, and it gives you a sense of confidence.” While moving far from home isn’t for everybody, she feels the journey can be invaluable. “As a dancer it’s important to be open to new experiences. You can learn so much by seeing how other people train and by experiencing a new environment.”

Amy Brandt, a regular contributor to Pointe, dances with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

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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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