Director's Notes: Dancing for the Punk Ballerina

Karole Armitage's company oozes downtown cool.

This may come as a bit of a surprise: The woman who choreographed Madonna’s music video for “Vogue” says she doesn’t care about  poses.

For choreographer Karole Armitage, single silhouettes are just points on a line. “I’m not interested in positions, I’m interested in the path between them,” explains Armitage, who is known as much for her eclectic movement style as for her collaborations with artists ranging from Jeff Koons to Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The onetime “punk ballerina” has spent the last seven years developing her own contemporary ballet company, Armitage Gone! Dance, in New York City. Her 10 highly distinctive dancers represent six nationalities and eight languages, and range from just over five feet to close to seven. But as diverse as they are, ballet is both their common vocabulary and point of departure.

Armitage is rigorous about technique; company members are required to take ballet class daily. They work 26 to 30 weeks a year, spending around 10 of those weeks on the road touring. Much of the rest of the time, the company is developing new work: Armitage says that as she has been creating a repertoire for the group, she has choreographed about four new pieces each year.

Armitage’s own path, meanwhile, has been as circuitous as the curvilinear movements she favors. She started her professional career dancing for George Balanchine at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland, and then joined Merce Cunningham’s company. She began to make a name for herself as a choreographer in the late 1970s in New York, then spent the next decade building the first iteration of Armitage Gone! Dance.

In the 1990s she left her company behind and decamped for Europe, first becoming director of MaggioDanza in Florence, then resident choreographer for France’s Ballet de Lorraine. She also maintained a successful career as a freelance choreographer, working throughout Europe and beyond.

After years as a rebel and a pioneer, she says Europe gave her “the chance to feel that working in dance was a serious adult activity.” A decade in, however, Armitage found herself longing once more to have a company of her own—on her own home turf. “There’s something particular about American dancers,” she says. “They are linguistically prolific—they speak many dance languages.

“Also, because it’s so hard to be a dancer here, people have an incredible ability to go for broke,” she adds. Unlike their European counterparts, for whom dance can be a comfortable career, dancers here need to struggle, she says: “They’re not bourgeois.”

Resurrecting Armitage Gone! also presented her with an opportunity to again develop a corps of dancers, and a physical vocabulary, that would let her build new work in a collaborative way. “It meant not having to start over every time I went to a new company,” she says, with palpable relief.

In a rehearsal for a new piece this past summer, the 10-member company seemed to function as a dynamic organism, with Armitage as much facilitator as director. Phrases would originate with one dancer and then ripple through the company. Armitage says she’ll often suggest a movement—say, a développé—and then let company members explore it in different planes, or at different times.

For this kind of communal development, Armitage says, all her dancers need to bring something to the creative process. “I look for unique individuals,” she says. “It’s important that they have something to say.”

And those strong individual streaks are just as important once a piece has moved beyond development into performance. “I almost never do unison; I cut a pattern to unfold,” Armitage says. “For example, if there is an arabesque, someone does it twisted or very low, or in penchée, or lying on the floor. My dancers have to be very strong in their own identities, so the layers are all strong.”

Ideally, she continues, a choreographed work would look as though the dancers are actually improvising. “You would feel them thinking, being, expressing,” she says. “It’s the opposite of just taking positions.”

At a Glance

Armitage Gone! Dance

Number of dancers: 10

Contract length: 26 to 30 weeks a year

Starting salary: $700/week, “and everyone gets a raise each year.”

Tour schedule: 10 weeks/year

Audition Tip

Armitage seeks out dancers who are truly versatile. “That’s a hallmark of the company,” she says. “Everyone is equally schooled in ballet and modern and something else.”

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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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