Your Training: Summer Study Sleuth

At first glance, all summer intensives seem similar: days full of dancing. Yet the opportunities actually vary widely. The right teacher could plug you in to key directors. A prime performance opportunity could lead to a traineeship or even a company position. But how do you figure out which programs will really deliver? A few tricks can help you scope out your options.

Research
Begin with the concrete: Read every last word of the acceptance package and study the school’s website. Pay attention to class sizes to see how much interaction you’ll have with the faculty. Then Google the program to find out where alumni have gone on to dance. Search for videos of the classes or performances to see the style and repertoire taught—and the level of talent being trained.

Run some name searches to trace the faculty’s connections. What are their backgrounds? Do they have current affiliations with companies you like? Pay attention to how long they’ve been teaching, and whether their curriculum is up-to-date with what companies expect now of dancers. Search for any interviews they’ve given; this could tell you their emphases in class.

Reach Out
Use your connections to get a sense of a program’s reputation. Start with your year-round teachers: Get their opinion on the programs you’re most interested in. They can contextualize a school for you, and explain its distinct characteristics and history. They might even be able to use their connections to your benefit. Michael Owen, director of dance at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, says, “I often make a phone call on behalf of a student, to make a school’s artistic staff aware of her specific talents.”

Also use online social networks to find dancers who have attended the program in the past. Ask how closely they got to interact with the director, whether company dancers ever took class, if ballet masters or artistic directors ever observed, and if they got to work with choreographers. Their responses will be more frank and nuanced than any information packet.

Keep an Open Mind
Don’t pigeonhole yourself by only focusing on your dream company’s school. Aara Krumpe attended the Joffrey Ballet’s summer program four times because she hoped to join the company, but she never received an offer. “It wasn’t the place for me,” she says. “Then I went to Ballet Austin’s summer program at age 19, and it was a much better fit: I was interested in the contemporary rep the company was doing. Now I’m a dancer there and I love it.”


Get the Scoop
Once you’ve done your research, what are the details you should really pay attention to? We broke down the highlights of two popular intensives.

Exploring Ballet With Suzanne Farrell
Director: Former New York City Ballet prima Suzanne Farrell. She is, of course, a direct link to her company, and she also stages co-productions with troupes such as Ballet Austin, Cincinnati Ballet, Sarasota Ballet and National Ballet of Canada.
Size: 30–36 students, all of whom take class together.
Faculty: Farrell teaches every class, so you have plenty of time to build a personal relationship.  
Schedule: There are two two-hour technique classes per day, six days a week, focusing on Farrell’s interpretation of Balanchine technique. Students may get some partnering or conditioning; no other techniques are offered.
Location: The Kennedy Center in D.C., home of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.  
Alumni: American Ballet Theatre’s Nicola Curry, NYCB’s Dana Jacobson, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Evelyn Kocak, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s Jessica Lawrence and Jordyn Richter.  
Performances: In the past, Farrell has choreographed on students for a small presentation.

Kaatsbaan Extreme Ballet
Director: Martine van Hamel, former ABT principal who now teaches at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
Size: 40 students are accepted per session, and split into four groups. (Kaatsbaan offers three sessions per summer.)
Faculty: Bonnie Mathis (former Boston Ballet II director) and Lisa Lockwood (former ABT dancer and a current teacher at Steps on Broadway), among others. Alessandra Ferri (former ABT principal) provides coaching. Master classes are taught by Ann Marie DeAngelo (former associate artistic director of Joffrey Ballet who has choreographed on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Nevada Ballet Theatre and ABT Studio Company), Franco De Vita (JKO principal), Kevin McKenzie (ABT artistic director and Kaatsbaan co-founder) and Craig Salstein (ABT soloist). Most faculty members are former ABT and Joffrey dancers who now teach, choreograph or direct.
Schedule: Morning technique class is taken all together or in groups, and the rest of the classes—including variations and coaching—are composed of one or two groups.
Alumni: Boston Ballet’s Paul Craig, Joffrey Ballet’s Jaime Hickey, Pennsylvania Ballet’s Andrew Daly.
Additional classes: Yoga, Pilates, flamenco, modern, composition, improvisation.
Repertoire: Usually a few classical variations and a group section from the same classical ballet are coached on all students. One or two new works by faculty are often created on students.
Performances: The final in-studio performance is informal, since the program’s focus is on training.



The Brits Are Coming
Want to learn more about the English style?  There’s no need to fly across the pond. The English National Ballet School will hold its first summer intensive in the United States this year. The weeklong program will take place at the Ballet Theatre of Toledo in Ohio from July 22 to 27. There will be separate courses for advanced (ages 13–15), pre-professional (ages 16–18) and professional (ages 18+) dancers, plus evening master classes for intermediate students—all taught by ENBS faculty. Participants can ask to be considered for the school’s year-round program in London. Tuition is $900 for the full course or $50 per master class. Audition by DVD or web link. For more, see ballettheatreoftoledo.org.


Technique Tip
“Once in a rehearsal, a choreographer said to me, ‘Your technique is there; now I want to see the texture in the movement—how a leg develops, or an arm.’ He wanted to see the work involved without my making it look difficult, just texturizing the steps. Those words have stuck with me throughout my career.” —BalletMet’s Adrienne Benz


New Moves
Take out your address book: Two of the biggest ballet competitions for students are relocating this year.

The Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, formerly the Boston International Ballet Competition, will be held in New York City for the first time this June. “Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen gave me huge support in setting up my competition, but New York is where my home base is, so it’s much easier to put everything together right here,” explains founder Valentina Kozlova. “Plus, it’s the center of the dance world.” Other than a slight tweak to age divisions (18-year-olds will now be part of the seniors, instead of the juniors), everything else about the competition will run the same way it has for the past two years. The deadline for applications is May 1. See vkibc.org.

Also on the move is The American Ballet Competition. It launched in Miami in 2004, then took place in Texas from 2010 to 2012, and this year it will head north to Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Massachusetts. “We wanted to establish a presence in another cultural hot spot, such as New England,” says ABC artistic director Katherine C. Kersten. “Walnut Hill has been an important contributor at ABC for many years. Michael Owen, WH dance director, is on our jury and will continue to award a Walnut Hill scholarship.” This year’s ABC will run from June 5 to 8, and the registration deadline is May 8. Check americanballetcompetition.com for more information.

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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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