Corps Stars

Last spring, as American Ballet Theatre began rehearsals for its Metropolitan Opera House run of La Bayadère, someone important was missing.

 

All the Nikiyas and Gamzattis were in the studio; no Solor or Bronze Idol was unaccounted for. But Marian Butler, a member of the corps de ballet since 1995, was out with an injury—a loss that ballet mistress Susan Jones felt deeply. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this without Marian?’ ” Jones says. “I needed her. She knows the ballet inside and out, so she’s a huge support system for me. And her work ethic, her calm demeanor—she’s an example for the other girls. It didn’t seem like Bayadère without Marian.”

 

Most aspiring ballerinas think of the corps de ballet as a place best escaped as quickly as possible, a stepping-stone on the way to better, more glamorous roles. But many—indeed, the majority of professional ballet dancers—have found rich, long, fulfilling careers in the corps. These senior corps artists are the heart and soul of the ballet company. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics, and they’ve earned the respect of their colleagues. Night after night, they make ballets happen.

 

It’s true that few of these dancers expected to end up as corps veterans. “I don’t think any little girl starts out thinking, ‘I want to be a corps dancer!’ ” says Kylee Kitchens, a member of Pacific Northwest Ballet since 2000. “I definitely heard people talk about dancers ‘rotting in the corps’ when I was training,” agrees Mariellen Olson, who joined San Francisco Ballet eight seasons ago.

 

But experienced corps members understand that the corps of an international ballet company can be a rewarding place. They’ve chosen to be there: Most could be dancing larger roles in smaller troupes. “New York City Ballet was always where I wanted to end up,” says Gwyneth Muller, who joined the company’s corps in 2000. “Yes, I could dance bigger parts elsewhere, but I wouldn’t get to do NYCB’s fantastic repertoire. This is such an exciting place! Even if I’m not dancing the lead in a Balanchine ballet, I feel like I’m doing something important by participating in a great piece of art that’s affecting people.”

 

Since most of today’s ballet companies present a wide range of work, corps members have many opportunities to develop their artistry. Contemporary pieces, in particular, tend to give the corps a chance to shine. “Unless we’re doing a big old classic, a Swan Lake, we’re not just standing there, waving our arms,” Muller says. “I’m constantly learning ballets that involve real dancing, and because the company commissions a lot of new work, my rep is always expanding.” Olson notes that even one of the most over-performed classical warhorses—The Nutcracker—can be a gold mine for corps members, who are likely to find themselves dancing the occasional marzipan shepherdess or ballerina doll in addition to their usual duties as flowers and snowflakes.

 

Some arm-waving is unavoidable, of course. But dancing as a Wili in 10 straight performances of Giselle isn’t necessarily a nightmare. “The principals only get one or two shots, but since we do the classics many times, we get to expand our interpretations of the character and play with different things,” Kitchens says. “I’ll think about my port de bras one night, the placement of my head the next.” If, after the umpteenth show, they begin to feel restless or bored—and all admit that they sometimes do—they think about the bigger picture. “I remind the corps girls that, as artists, they bring the same level of contribution to the performance as Odette or Giselle,” Jones points out. “There’s something uniquely beautiful about the corps ‘dressing the stage’ for the principals,” Butler says. “It’s a tradition. I think about that a lot when I’m frustrated: Without me, without us, the ballet isn’t complete.”

 

Without the senior corps members, the company isn’t complete, either. As Jones knows, veteran corps dancers often provide assistance to the ballet mistress in rehearsal. “They’re my security blanket,” says Jones, who herself danced in ABT’s corps for almost nine years. “I remember the 1970-something version of a ballet; they remember the littlest details of all the changes made since then, which I lose track of. It’s in their bodies.” They also help new corps members, who often receive little coaching and yet must quickly familiarize themselves with the classical repertoire. Many senior corps women even consider themselves mentors to greener dancers. “I let the new dancers know that I’m there if they have any questions about choreography—or about how to survive the weeks of performing,” Butler says. “We take it upon ourselves to make sure they feel comfortable with the steps and the style,” Olson says. “In the end, we all have to fly together.”

 

That sense of camaraderie extends to life offstage. It can get lonely at the top of a ballet company, but corps members can rely on each other. “When things get tough, we can commiserate: ‘Ugh, not another Swan,’ or ‘Oh man, my feet hurt too!’ ” Olson says. And hundreds of shared hours in rehearsal studios and dressing rooms foster deep, lifelong friendships. “I’ve grown up with these girls,” Kitchens says. “We’ve had amazing experiences together. They’re my family here in Seattle.”

 

Ultimately, senior corps dancers find joy in the fact that they are living that little-girl dream. “We started dancing because we wanted to perform,” Muller says. “Being onstage is a privilege, and we have more stage time than anyone else.”

 

“That thrill that you get when the lights go down before a show, the breeze you feel as the curtain comes up—at that moment, I’m not thinking about my rank or my role,” Kitchens says. “I’m just thinking, ‘I’m up here! Dancing!’ ”

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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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