Company Life: A Change of Directors

Company dancers share a special bond with their artistic directors. For years, even decades, they spend every moment trying to impress that one person at the front of the room—and benefiting from that person’s mentorship. When a director leaves, it can seem like the world has been turned upside down.

With a change of the guard imminent at Miami City Ballet (founding director Edward Villella will leave at the end of the 2013 season), another group of dancers is about to face the upheaval that follows a leader’s departure. The new director will have his or her own taste in dancers and repertoire, and a particular vision for the company—one that might have little to do with his or her predecessor’s.
But while a change of leadership can make you feel suddenly vulnerable, it’s also an opportunity. The reevaluation process isn’t a one-way street: It’s a chance for you to reassess your place in the company, too. It can be the push you need, either to rededicate yourself to the path you’ve been following or to be proactive about finding a new one. And whether you end up staying with the company or leaving, you’ll get to work with a new person who will stretch and challenge you in different ways.

What Does the New Director Want?
So what can you expect when a new director takes over? “It can be tricky,” says Ashley Wheater, who took the helm of The Joffrey Ballet in 2007. “I started by meeting with each of the dancers, telling them about myself and my vision.” Listen closely to the new director; it can help you decide for yourself whether the company will still be a good fit for you.

Director-dancer chemistry can be difficult to decode. But nearly every director is looking for dancers who are hard workers. If you think you’d like to stay with the company, make a point of showing the new director your dedication. Wheater spent his first year at The Joffrey assessing the company, and disciplined dancers quickly rose to the top of his list. “I started to look at their work ethic, and eventually it all became transparent,” he says.

Even the smoothest transitions have their bumps, so you should expect some upheaval. Under Wheater, The Joffrey’s company roster changed significantly. “I got flack, especially from the press,” Wheater remembers. But the decisions, he emphasizes, were professional, not personal—an important, albeit difficult, thing for dancers to keep in mind. Today, half of the company is made up of new hires. “I did not come to drill an army,” Wheater says, “but to further an artform.”

If You Leave
If you thrived under your old director but have trouble seeing eye to eye with the new one, it might be time to move on. Amy Fote, who danced with Milwaukee Ballet for 14 years, chose to leave her longtime home after Michael Pink came on as artistic director in 2002. He had a new vision for the company and she felt the tone changed quite a bit. (“He has a strong personality,” she says.) She wasn’t enjoying the work anymore, and realized MB was no longer the right fit.

If you decide to leave—or are let go, as several of the MB dancers were—take advantage of a chance to plan your next step. Are you looking for a company that resembles your former home in size and repertoire, or do you want to make a bigger change? Are you willing to accept a demotion or a lower salary at a company that will give you the artistic opportunities you want?

Craving a change, Fote knew that she needed a place where she could rediscover her love of dance. “I was wavering between trying for Houston Ballet or the Royal New Zealand Ballet—or retiring,” she says. After much deliberation, Fote joined Houston Ballet in 2005. She took a demotion to first soloist in the process, but felt the diverse repertoire at HB was worth it. In Houston, Fote found herself busy learning a number of ballets, with less rehearsal time and higher expectations. She flourished in the fast-paced environment. And she worked well with artistic director Stanton Welch, who eventually promoted her to principal.

Even if the circumstances of your departure are less than ideal, try not to burn bridges. “Michael and I ultimately parted on a good note, which was important to me,” Fote says. “I was even invited to MB to dance in a gala a few years ago.”

If You Stay
If you decide that you’d like to stay on under the new director, you can do more than just hope he’ll choose to keep you. Make your feelings known. Set up a meeting to discuss your interest and the reasons you would do well under his leadership.

For Sarasota Ballet principal Kate Honea, the transition from Robert de Warren to Iain Webb in 2007 brought much trepidation. “I didn’t want to leave—I knew this was my home,” she remembers. “But I was nervous. I was used to Warren; I was so comfortable. And I worried that Iain wouldn’t like my style.” Honea’s fears were assuaged after she arranged a meeting with Webb. “He was very positive about me,” she says. “He was also full of great ideas. Because he wasn’t a choreographer, he had plans to bring a lot of work to the company, including ballets by Ashton and Balanchine. I was excited by that.”

Even if you and your new director do reach an agreement, there will be an adjustment period, which is often as challenging as starting over at a new company. Honea remembers being surprised by the sea of new faces that appeared at SB after Webb took over. “They were all younger than I was,” Honea recalls. “I had to step up my game.” With Webb’s rank-blind casting style, Honea often found herself in the first cast for one role and the third for another. “The whole environment was different. I had to get used to sharing a role, which was new for me.” And Webb demanded a different style of dancing, as well. “I had to learn to use more of my body, especially for the new Ashton repertoire,” she says. “I needed to bend more and use my épaulement.”

Give yourself time to adjust to the new situation, and embrace it as a chance to grow. Honea doesn’t regret her decision. “Iain pushes me in a different way.”

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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