The August Advantage

Looking to maximize your summer training? Then keep your calendar open in August. Aside from the plethora of standard five- and six-week programs, August “mini-intensives” have started popping up within the last few years. More streamlined than a typical summer course, these one- to three-week sessions give dancers an extra edge. Some polish your technique with in-depth coaching, some hone a specific style and others immerse you in repertoire and performances. While each has a different focus, they’re all intentionally smaller and geared towards students on the cusp of a professional career. And they can help you start off the fall a step ahead.

Putting the “Intense” in Intensive
These shorter intensives are not for the faint of heart. Kaatsbaan’s three-week Extreme Ballet program in upstate New York enrolls only 35 students. After a combined technique class each morning, dancers split into groups for pointe and partnering, and then even smaller groups—fewer than 10 students—for detailed coaching sessions. These give students an opportunity to focus intensely on aspects of their technique that they wouldn’t normally have time for in a regular ballet class. “We can get very specific,” says director Martine van Hamel. “Often we’ll work on running or walking—in a contemporary way or a classical way, as a swan or as a person. Or we’ll work on pirouettes or port de bras—whatever I feel they need.”

 

“You never get to really work on ballet runs in class, but they’re one of the hardest things to do!” says 17-year-old Karen Moscato of Princeton, NJ, who attended last year’s intensive. “I realized I was running all wrong, but now I can do it quite well.”

 

The intimate class size is another bonus. “A lot of attention is focused on individuals,” says Moscato. “You can be seen by teachers like American Ballet Theatre director Kevin McKenzie.”

 

Philadelphia’s Rock School offers one-week Coaching Intensives in June and August for approximately 30 students. The faculty splits dancers into two levels for technique, pointe, men’s class and Pilates. The latter part of the day includes an hour-and-a-half coaching session with video analysis, where
students perform short exercises across the floor, two at a time, while teachers videotape them.

 

“They watch themselves and say, ‘Oh! I see it now!’ ” says Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, who directs the intensive along with her husband, Bojan Spassoff. “The video reinforces the corrections we’ve been giving. They see it and it clicks.” Themes for analysis might include jumps, turns or even pas de bourée. “The goal is to get to the nitty-gritty that they don’t get in class,” says Wolf Spassoff. “It’s not about the tricks, the 32 fouettés. It’s about breaking everything down, making it cleaner and better.”

 

“Although,” Bojan Spassoff adds, “by breaking it down, you have a much easier time getting to the 32 fouettés!”
   
Performance Opportunities

Some mini-intensives give dancers a chance to enhance their performance skills. At Nutmeg Conservatory’s Apprentice Program, which offers two weeks of classes, rehearsals and performances, “the atmosphere is more like a dance company,” says principal Ronald Alexander. While Nutmeg’s other summer courses break students into smaller groups, the Apprentice Program keeps students together for their morning classes, with the exception of pointe and men’s class. “Then the rest of the afternoon is repertoire, repertoire, repertoire,” says Alexander.  

 

The dancers learn classical and neoclassical variations, original choreography and contemporary works by choreographers such as Momix’s Moses Pendleton. Last year, rehearsals culminated in a performance at Jacob’s Pillow’s Inside/Out stage. “It was the highlight of the summer to perform at such an internationally renowned venue as Jacob’s Pillow,” says Alexander. “We hope to do it every year.”

 

“The program attracts mature students looking to supplement their summer training or prepare for auditions,” he continues. “They want to participate because the idea resembles a professional company.”

Exploring a Different Style
Other programs simply offer a quick immersion in a particular technique. Ballet Chicago’s Advanced Intensive, for instance, attracts students curious to explore the Balanchine style. The two-week course includes a rigorous daily schedule of technique, pointe, variations, pas de deux and men’s class. The intensive also partially functions as an audition period for those interested in Ballet Chicago’s year-round studio company, which performs Balanchine ballets as well as new choreography. “It’s not exclusively an audition,” says artistic director Daniel Duell, “but it does give us a chance to see what students have artistically and technically and a sense of how they are to work with.”

 

At Ballet Chicago and other August intensives, the majority of dancers enrolled arrive fresh off a six-week program. To avoid burnout or injury, dancers must be smart and listen to their bodies. “I wouldn’t recommend going for more than six weeks unless you’re older and truly want to be a professional,” says van Hamel. 

 

Moscato, who trained for nine straight weeks last summer, knows the feeling firsthand. “I was exhausted, but it was worth it,” she says. “I’ve gotten so much better, and it prepared me for the company experience, where I’ll always be working that hard.”
   
Amy Brandt is Pointe’s Ask Amy columnist.

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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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