Director's Notes: The Choreographers' Company

Paul Lightfoot has rekindled NDT’s core mission: creating groundbreaking contemporary ballet.

Nederlands Dans Theater’s sleek performances don’t show it, but just two years ago, the company was in serious trouble. A review of government arts funding recommended a 50 percent cut.

In search of a solution, the board hired a new artistic director: Paul Lightfoot, who has been with NDT for 28 years as a dancer and choreographer. “Internationally, people were wildly interested in NDT, but we didn’t even bother to ask what Holland understood about us,” he says. “We had to write a new artistic and financial plan to prove who we were.” It worked: The company escaped with only minor budget cuts, and now is thriving again under Lightfoot.

Born in England, Lightfoot trained at The Royal Ballet Upper School. One morning, then-NDT director Jirí Kylián watched class, and offered Lightfoot a contract with NDT2. “I didn’t want to go,” says Lightfoot. “At The Royal we were so blinkered. Some people told me I would have to dance naked.” He gave it a try anyway, and once he walked in the door, his world changed. “I realized it was the place to be if you had creative aspirations.”

Creation has always been at the core of the company: NDT was founded in 1959 by a group of dancers from Dutch National Ballet who wanted to experiment with new choreography. In its early years, headed by Benjamin Harkarvy and Hans van Manen, NDT went through a period Lightfoot describes as “everyone just breaking every rule.” It was among the first companies to herald the then-groundbreaking idea of contemporary ballet, and became known for its inventive brand of dance theater. The ensemble rose to international prominence during Kylián’s 22 years at the helm, starting in 1978. It became an audience darling with its elegant blend of neoclassical and modern aesthetics. Kylián’s work led the way, but the company also kept on nurturing a range of choreographers.

Kylián’s departure as artistic director in 1999 left a void, and three directors came and went in the decade that followed. When Lightfoot finally stepped into the position in 2011, it was a move that reaffirmed the company’s identity as an incubator for new work. Like Kylián, Lightfoot is an in-demand dancemaker, having created over 40 works for NDT with partner Sol León.

“It’s harder to look ahead with all our past now,” Lightfoot says. “At this point, NDT has a responsibility to its traditions. Jirí’s repertoire is symbolic for us, but he was fully aware that NDT shouldn’t be a house about one person.” The company currently boasts four in-house choreographers in addition to Lightfoot and León: Crystal Pite, Alexander Ekman, Johan Inger and Marco Goecke. It holds regular choreography workshops and this season, NDT will perform four world premieres and NDT2 will dance seven.

Lightfoot takes a relaxed approach to directing. “I’m kind of refusing to become the director with my dancers. Perhaps it’s not easy for them to deal with me playing the fool and being the boss, but I like to be on the work floor.” He’s focused on strengthening the group’s family feel. “I want people to ask questions, trust in each other,” he says. Last summer, he hired high-profile American dancer Drew Jacoby. “She often wasn’t accepted into companies because she stands out, but in my books that’s a good thing.”

In 2012, Lightfoot orchestrated NDT’s first international broadcasts through Emerging Pictures’ Ballet in Cinema. The programming, a mix of Kylián classics and edgy premieres, reflects the company’s trademark high production values and quirky style, all darting, fluid limbs. “NDT has a certain way of moving that no one else has,” Lightfoot says. “It is the kind of place that shouldn’t be too sure of itself, that should have a sense of vulnerability, because ultimately, that’s what makes you creative.”

At A Glance

Nederlands Dans Theater

Location: The Hague, Netherlands

Size: 30 dancers in NDT, 20 in NDT2

Starting salary: Company does not release this information

Length of contract: Year-round (and after four years, indefinite)

Performances: 90–100 per season in the Netherlands, 30–40 abroad

Website: ndt.nl

Audition Advice

Only NDT2 holds open auditions. After class and repertoire, dancers perform solos. “A lot of dancers make the solos themselves,” Lightfoot says. “We’re interested in seeing the creative person. We look for human qualities, for someone who’ll go the extra mile, who can embrace anything.” Lightfoot is particularly keen on American dancers, citing their work ethic and “positive ambition.”

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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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