Director's Notes: Maestro in Montevideo

Julio Bocca injects his experience and flair into Uruguay’s Ballet Nacional Sodre.

Julio Bocca’s performances during his 20 years at American Ballet Theatre had the tangible feel of verismo. Whatever character he danced—Romeo, Albrecht, Onegin—grabbed you from the stage and swept you into the action. So why wouldn’t the Argentinian star demand energy and excellence as an artistic director? In March 2010, Bocca was appointed director of Ballet Nacional Sodre (BNS) by Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, and in a short period he has dramatically elevated the company’s standard.

Uruguay’s national ballet company has a long history; in 2015 it will celebrate its 80th anniversary. Nijinsky almost accepted an offer to start a school in Uruguay after his final tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1919. An earlier incarnation of BNS, Corps de Ballet Sodre, one of the two major 20th-century South American ballet companies (along with Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires), was founded by Uruguayan choreographer Alberto Pouyanne. A stream of Europeans left their mark on the company, staging classical works such as Les Sylphides, Swan Lake and Coppélia. Over time, the troupe experienced highs and lows, and when Bocca assumed directorship, there were only 25 dancers. He has expanded the company to 68, including five soloists and four principals. One of the ballerinas is former ABT soloist (and June/July 2010 Pointe cover girl) Maria Riccetto.

“When I came here,” Bocca says, “one of the nice things was there was little repertoire”—the works danced were primarily those of South American choreographers, such as Oscar Araiz and Mauricio Wainrot—“so it was very easy for me to add work.” The choreographers, contacts and knowledge of productions from Bocca’s ABT years have proven useful. “It’s important for these young people to know the work and know the styles,” he says. Emphasizing BNS’s classical tradition, he has already mounted full-length productions of Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Le Corsaire and Natalia Makarova’s staging of La Bayadère. Bocca has also presented triple bills of ballets by choreographers such as William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián and Nacho Duato. In December, the company danced Boris Eifman’s Russian Hamlet. Bocca has plans to acquire Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 2015 and John Cranko’s Onegin in 2016.

Is Bocca hoping to make BNS the ABT of South America? “It will be a dream for me to compare BNS with the big companies in the world, because in South America we don’t have companies like ABT, but we have the talent to make it possible,” he says.

Bocca also mentions that his tenure as director of Ballet Argentino in Buenos Aires gave him valuable experience. “What I learned there is how to maintain distances with dancers and still continue to be able to communicate what I want from them as artists—discipline, respect and love for the opportunities that they have.”

The majority of BNS’s dancers—52 percent—come from Uruguay, with others from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru and Spain. Bocca says he is open to hiring dancers from anywhere, although he wants to cultivate artists from within Uruguay, because the government pays the dancers’ salaries. What does he seek in his dancers? “As a director, I look for everything!” he says. “I look for a great body, nice height, beautiful feet and legs, but the most important thing is what they present”—their passion and charisma. In addition to the annual auditions, he scouts for dancers when he judges competitions like the USA International Ballet Competition, where he’ll serve on the panel this year. Bocca teaches the company himself in separate classes for men and women. And for those who don’t give 100 percent: “If they’re lazy, or come late for class, next year, I say thank you.”

BNS performs at the Auditorio Nacional del Sodre, a 2,000-seat theater in Montevideo, which also has two studios where the company rehearses and takes class, as well as a physical therapy room. In addition to national tours, the company has booked 2014 trips to Chile, Russia, Thailand, Israel and Malaysia. With a budget of $2 million, the company has two private sponsors and three national sponsors.

So why did Bocca choose Uruguay over his home country Argentina? Besides the fact that he was offered the job, Bocca, now 46, loves Montevideo and met his life partner there, “the other half of my orange,” as he says. “I have my sunset in front of the water. I enjoy going to work and coming back home. For 27 years of my career, I have never done that.”

Bocca extends that sense of domesticity to BNS. “It’s a friendly company,” he says. “One of the things I like is that the dancers are very close. That’s important. When people from other companies come to live here, it’s a big change. They find it’s like a family here.”

At A Glance

Ballet Nacional Sodre

Location: Montevideo, Uruguay

Length of contract: 52 weeks

Starting corps de ballet salary: $1,100 per month (a living wage in Montevideo)

Additional perks: An extra month of holiday pay

Auditions: Held every October in Montevideo; considering additional auditions in U.S. and Europe. Annual contracts start in January.


Audition Advice

“Give me an audition from the heart, so that I can really see if you love it when you are dancing. I want to see something is there. Auditions are for everybody, not just for the Spanish-speaking. Dancers send me tapes and DVDs, but I want to see the person in class.” —Julio Bocca

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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."

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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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