Company Life: Touring Tips

I dragged myself off the plane after the 12-hour flight to Melbourne, stiff, fuzzy-headed from jet lag, and wondering if I could ever get pointe shoes on my swollen feet again. At the same time, I was bursting with excitement. As a 20-year-old corps dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, I was embarking on my first major tour, which would turn out to be a challenging, exhausting and thrilling 10 days in Australia.

For any ballet company, large or small, contemporary or classical, touring is a fact of life. My tour to Melbourne as a young dancer was full of ups and downs (literally—the rehearsal studio was so slippery that I fell out of a tour jeté the first day and was sore for a week), but navigating my way through it gave me both insight and a suitcase full of strategies I’d use for the rest of my career.

What took me back to those early days was a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea, with Oregon Ballet Theatre. Though now retired from performing, I went on this tour as a ballet master, charged with coaching a cast of Korean children for their roles in OBT’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. I had the opportunity to watch a new generation of OBT dancers confront the challenges—and reap the rewards—of touring. What does it take to not just survive a tour, but want to go on another one? Mastering the practicalities is key, of course (see the sidebar), but having the right mind-set can enrich your experience both as a dancer and as a person.

Every tour I’ve been on has inevitably hit snags, minor or major, that required flexibility and teamwork to get through. OBT’s arrival in Seoul coincided with a major storm that flooded the Seoul Arts Center, wreaking havoc and drastically reducing stage rehearsal time. After taking stock of the situation and seeing that it would require a massive team effort to prepare for opening night, the dancers adopted a can-do spirit and got to work: The corps de ballet strategized offstage how to space Snow and Flowers to save precious rehearsal time, and many soloists and principals prepared to perform without even setting foot onstage first. “Everyone cheered each other on,” remembers OBT soloist Julia Rowe. “I looked around during class one hot, miserable day in the rehearsal studio, and everyone looked just like I felt. I knew we’d all get through it together.”

That togetherness can be a positive aspect of life on tour, but the constant company that comes with sharing a hotel room, mealtimes and travel schedules can be wearing—particularly if, like many dancers, you’re something of an introvert and are used to having your own space. During my touring days, I found that spending time alone helped me clear my head and recharge. Armed with a neighborhood map, I liked to wander on my own, sit in cafés and get a feel for what life was like in every city I visited. If you need “me time” but find there aren’t opportunities for such escapes on your busy tour schedule, try getting up early before your roommate and slipping up to the hotel roof for some meditation before the start of the workday. In Seoul, I spied dancers carving out alone time in various corners of the hotel lobby, taking advantage of the free WiFi to reconnect with family and friends.

Staying in touch with home was always important to me on tour, but I also made an effort to experience local culture. It can be tough, when tomorrow’s performance is on your mind, to will yourself to break out of your familiar routine and experiment a little—but some of the best memories come from trying new things. Dancers are often (justifiably) timid about new foods, for example, but OBT soloist Javier Ubell loved sampling Korean food. “One of the best nondancing experiences was trying things I never would have if we hadn’t been on tour!” he says. In fact, so many of the OBT dancers developed a taste for Korean barbecue that a bunch of us sought out a Korean restaurant in Portland for comparison when we got home.

There will be other kinds of culture shock on tour, but don’t be intimidated. The audiences in Korea confused the OBT dancers at first because they were almost silent. But apprentice Kelsie Nobriga stayed after one performance to sign autographs and saw a completely different side of the Korean ballet fans. “It was sweet to see how excited everyone was,” she says. She realized that their behavior in the theater was actually an expression of respect. “I was happy to know all our hard work was appreciated!”

Soak up as many experiences as you can. What do I remember of that long-ago Australian trip? Going to the Melbourne Zoo with my friend Kim, tasting Vegemite for the first time, learning to love black tea with lemon and chatting with Australian Ballet dancers after watching them rehearse. And I will never forget the thrill of feeling the warm, enthusiastic Aussie appreciation come across the footlights—worth every minute of that 12-hour flight.


Practical Tips for Life on Tour

Don’t Forget to Pack…

-Any potentially hard-to-find necessities, including things like toe tape, eyelashes and glue and hairnets. I once tried to buy hairspray in Finland and ended up with air freshener because I couldn’t read the label!
-Travel-size packets of laundry soap, in case that elusive laundromat can’t be found. Shampoo works in a pinch, too.
-Your own protein or granola bars, trail mix, crackers, instant oatmeal, cups of dry soup mix, protein powder, cans of tuna or jars of nut butter in case you’re stuck at a theater in the middle of nowhere and need nourishment.
-A portable medicine cabinet. Searching for a drugstore is not what you want to do in between performances or on your day off. Bring any prescription medication you need, of course, but also over-the-counter items like ibuprofen, cold medicine, Pepto-Bismol and antihistamines.

 

On the Plane, Bus or Train
-Traveling always hurts—but just how much depends on what you do in the air or on the road. Sleeping is good; moving around is better. Get up and stretch, wherever you can. (I’ve been known to do grand pliés in the galley of the airplane to stay loose!) Give yourself a mini leg massage to keep the blood flowing. Wearing compression stockings can also prevent swelling.
-Planes especially are notoriously dehydrating. Drink plenty of water at regular intervals as you travel. I like to take a travel mug and keep it filled up with hot tea on a long flight.


Going with the Flow

-Dancing in a new place will be disorienting. Even if you hit the jackpot and tour to a place where the theater, studio and stage are ideal for dance, you will still need to adjust quickly to the unfamiliar surroundings. Try not to break in brand-new pointe shoes until you’ve tested the studio or stage and know if the floor is hard, slippery, sticky or uneven.

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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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