The Choreography Curator

It’s not easy to catch artistic director Helgi Tomasson for a chat mid-season at San Francisco Ballet. The company must squeeze eight programs into little more than three months a year at the War Memorial Opera House (the San Francisco Opera is the other principal tenant). Tomasson spends much of that period rushing from studio to studio.


But dealing with that constricted time frame is the only complaint you will hear from Tomasson, and he vents only because of his dancers. “We have a great roster,” he says.


“They must dance; we simply need to have more performance opportunities.”


In other respects, Tomasson, now 68, is satisfied. “If you had asked me 26 years ago if I would still be here, I’d say you were crazy,” confesses the Iceland-born former dancer in his airy office at SFB’s headquarters. “I think I have accomplished a lot by bringing in so many different choreographers to challenge the dancers.”


In his first years helming the company, Tomasson almost gleefully confounded expectations. He came to San Francisco in 1985, after retiring from a distinguished 15-year career dancing at New York City Ballet. But he had choreographed little and his management experience consisted of running a small chamber troupe. Rumors spread about the future identity of the company; Tomasson’s long relationship with Balanchine and Robbins led many to expect a pale imitation of NYCB.


But the cynics underestimated Tomasson’s passion for investigating a wide range of choreography, which was stoked in part by his early stints at the Joffrey and Harkness Ballets. So, while SFB performs Balanchine in exemplary fashion, the company devotes comparable attention to fare from Fokine to Forsythe. Tomasson has invited outstanding modernists, like Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, to make new dances. Christopher Wheeldon is an annual guest. And it was Tomasson who commissioned Alexei Ratmansky’s first American ballet.


“I have tried to show the entire spectrum of dance based on ballet technique,” he explains. When a revival of Forsythe’s blistering Artifact Suite again divided audiences this season, Tomasson was scarcely apologetic: “I loved the response,” he says. “In the second half of Artifact, the influence of Balanchine is unmistakable. Forsythe even acknowledges that debt.”


It is clear that Tomasson’s tenure in San Francisco has eradicated that ancient distinction between a national and regional American ballet company. What strikes you, even on first exposure to SFB, is the sheer stage-worthiness of the dances before you. Everything looks immaculately rehearsed. Revival here usually means rebirth.


Tomasson credits both his years with Balanchine and his SFB staff for that accomplishment: “They are very conscious of how choreographers want their ballets to be danced. We must be true to their visions, to their different characters and styles. The style is part of the meaning.”


To make up for the short season in San Francisco, Tomasson has pushed constantly for an extensive touring schedule, both here and abroad. “It has made us visible and highly respected,” he says. Those tours, which have included several visits to Europe and Asia, have generated interest among dancers worldwide and, no doubt, are partially responsible for SFB’s remarkable international roster. (Ask Tomasson why there are so few American principals at the moment, and he will query you: “Where are they?”)


Hailing from all over, there is no physical prototype for SFB dancers. They flourish in all shapes, heights and sensibilities. What they share, however, is an exceptional speed of articulation. British choreographer Wayne McGregor, who set his Chroma on SFB this season, says that, “after the Paris Opéra Ballet, San Francisco is the fastest ballet company in the world.”


Tomasson receives hundreds of DVDs every year from hopeful dancers. “You can tell a lot about a dancer’s talent from a DVD,” says Tomasson. “What you can’t tell is how a dancer will fit in with everybody else. We have a very high standard here. How do new dancers look in class? Can they keep up with the others?”


Tomasson prefers to see hopefuls try out in company class. “I need to think about whom I can pair them with. Sometimes, in choosing new dancers, I must go with what I need. I may have a lot of short guys in the company at some point, so I would not require too many tall women that season.”
Budget limits play a major role in determining who gets hired. But that situation changes annually and Tomasson’s advice is: “Persevere.”


He does not deny that students at the SFB School have an advantage in the hiring process. “There’s always a need for corps dancers, and there are some very talented people coming out of the program,” says Tomasson. “If we can’t hire them, we try to help them find jobs in other places. The school is very good about opening doors. I have often picked up the phone and asked directors of other companies if they need a dancer with particular qualifications.”


Ask Tomasson if he ever had to audition for Mr. B and he laughs. He had been a student at School of American Ballet for six months, but never made the cut to get into NYCB. A few years later, while dancing with Harkness, he received a telegram from Mr. B’s assistant, Barbara Horgan, urging him to come to New York and take classes with the company for a week.   


“One day a dancer congratulated me. ‘Oh,’ I was told, ‘everybody knows you’ve been hired.’


“Was that an audition? You tell me.”


At A Glance
San Francisco Ballet
Founded: 1933
Number of Dancers: 69 company members and 4 apprentices
Contract Length: 42 weeks
Minimum Weekly Starting Salary: Corps: $1,064.78; soloist: $1,478.71; principal: $1,913.47, plus overtime, vacation pay and other benefits.

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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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