Stars Behind the Stars

Coaches help ballerinas refine their approach to a role. Over time, a bond can be forged as dancer and coach strive together toward a better result. Many of the greatest ballerinas credit their coaches with their success. When former American Ballet Theatre prima Susan Jaffe retired, she laid a bouquet of roses at the feet of her coach, Irina Kolpakova. Today, ABT’s Paloma Herrera works almost exclusively with Kolpakova, a former Kirov ballerina and ABT ballet master. Natalia Magnicaballi has done the same with the legendary Suzanne Farrell since she joined The Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 1999. Sarah Lamb, a principal with The Royal Ballet since 2006, works with ballet master Alexander Agadzhanov on her roles in the classics. Here is what these ballerinas have to say about the coaches who have provided them with invaluable guidance.
 

Paloma Herrera  

I joined ABT 20 years ago. The first variation I learned with the company was Amor in Don Quixote. Irina has been with me since the very first day—literally. She knows me inside out. I completely trust her. Whatever she says I will do, but I can ask her why to understand better. For me, it’s an amazing feeling because I always have those eyes on me during every performance. I’ve done ballets like Swan Lake and Don Q a lot. It’s great to go into the studio with those roles and know that we can take them somewhere else. She doesn’t say, “You have to do it this way and that’s the only way to do it.”   

Nobody knows you better than the coach who works with you all the time. They are going to tell you the truth. It is that working process that I love. You can go in the studio and rehearse a lot, but it’s not the same as having someone you can trust. Irina was an incredible dancer, but as a coach she always wants you to be as good as you can be. For dancers it is really important to keep pushing in every direction.

Irina has a lot of energy. She is always showing all the steps with such feeling. She sometimes says, “My English is so bad,” but I can understand right away what she is trying to say. It’s her being, the energy she gives the room. Even working on ballets like Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper and The Bright Stream—the choreography is so full—it’s a whole new way of dancing, of how to move. We found it together.

Natalia Magnicaballi
Working with Ms. Farrell inspires and nourishes me as an artist. Sometimes she will raise her hand right in front of me without saying a word and I’ll know exactly what she means, or with a few words she will give me the “feeling” of the role she is passing on, so I can think how to approach it. I feel it’s all about trust; you know she will always tell you what is best for you.

Something that I love about working with her is that she triggers my imagination and instincts as a dancer. She doesn’t want me to dance any ballet the way she or other dancers did. She encourages and guides me to find my way to make the ballets my own. With her, it’s very rare to watch a video to learn a ballet—she passes them directly to me.
               
Mr. Balanchine is regarded as the father of American ballet and Ms. Farrell as his muse. Through her passion, love and commitment, she has opened my eyes and heart to Mr. Balanchine’s fascinating worlds. His ballets, his legacy are handed directly to me from her. For me, as a ballerina, it’s more than special; it’s an honor.
 
Sarah Lamb
Alexander Agadzhanov is Ukrainian and had the same training I did—my teacher and coach was Tatiana Nicolaevna Legat of the Kirov—so I understand him. We have the same approach to classical roles, the same exacting nature and the same feeling of continuity. I don’t know the exact translation into English, but in Russian the word “cantilena” means grace and fluidity and plasticity, which are what make dance—all the steps in between, all the linking and preparations that accumulate and produce the image of liquidity.
          
Alexander demonstrates a lot, and partners me to show my partners how he wants them to do a certain step with me. He is always on his feet showing rather than telling. Sometimes I put too much force or energy into something when he knows if I attack it less I will sail around in a pirouette rather than turning quickly and finishing abruptly. He is really observant and can see not only what has gone wrong, but how it has gone wrong and then he corrects it. He isn’t pedantic, he won’t overanalyze. He simply says what is needed to ameliorate it. 

I feel I’ve grown in every role I have done with Alexander. He doesn’t impose his thoughts on me, but he will discuss certain points where he thinks I should change something and he always has a good reason. Often something that will work in close proximity doesn’t work in a theater and he has a real sense of theatricality and knows what is effective. Having a coach is a privilege—like having a private tutor. It’s a wonderful tradition in ballet.

Joseph Carman, a frequent contributor to Pointe, is author of Round About The 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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