Ballet Electrified

Two dancers rehearse under the skylight in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s lofty studios as Alexander Ekman looks on. The Swedish choreographer is creating a duet. As he watches, Harumi Terayama, a Juilliard graduate, and Nickemil Concepcion, who previously danced with Ballet Tech, embellish a phrase or two with each pass at the choreography, moving with the pliancy, muscularity and daring that typifies Cedar Lake. It’s dancers like these who have lured some of today’s most sought-after choreographers to work with the company.


When Cedar Lake launched in 2003, few could have predicted how quickly its influence would be felt. Founded by Nancy Walton Laurie—niece of Sam Walton of Walmart fame—some initially saw Cedar Lake as a vanity project. Laurie had been a patron of dance in her hometown of St. Louis, but her newness to New York’s dance scene, combined with Cedar Lake’s sleek state-of-the-art headquarters near the city’s newly restored High Line, made critics doubt its artistic integ­rity. “I think we had to pay our dues,” says 36-year-old artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who joined in 2005.
The company has steadily gained credibility. Pouffer’s artistic direction has evolved, and the dancers have proved major assets. “They’re very strong technically, very physical,” notes Ekman. He is not alone in his admiration. “Cedar Lake has a very fresh, talented group of dancers,” says English choreographer Hofesh Shechter. “The company also allows a good period of time to create the work.” Dancers too have come to look at Cedar Lake as a smart option. The company’s annual 48-week contract is far longer than those of many traditional ballet companies. “We recently had an audition with almost 250 women,” says Pouffer. The company currently numbers 15, with seven women and eight men.


What makes a dancer potential Cedar Lake material? “Have a healthy relationship with ballet,” says ballet mistress Alexandra Damiani. “It’s our foundation. We also look at a dancer’s personality, creativity, their hunger to dance and create.” Cedar Lake’s dancers have a rich range of ballet training that includes Canada’s National Ballet School and The Boston Conservatory. Some are choreographers themselves. The company’s rigorous daily technique class, led by Damiani, helps pull the dancers together stylistically.


Many observers mark the 2007 staging of Ohan Narharin’s Decadance as the company’s turning point. The choreographer also taught classes in his signature Gaga technique, which requires that dancers work with the studio mirrors covered, an experience many describe as liberating. While the Cedar Lake repertoire varies greatly, one common thread is a full-out visceral style. Last year, the company commissioned Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create Orbo Novo, a full-length work, for the company’s Joyce Theater debut. Performing diverging styles can be daunting, but also tremendously appealing. “It’s really a personal exploration for the dancers,” says Damiani.


Cedar Lake has two New York seasons a year, plus one or more additional pieces by Pouffer. The company has expanded its touring schedule, which this season includes at least 15 dates in the U.S. and Europe. It has also established an annual residency program at UCLA in California. This fall’s Joyce Theater run includes new works by Ekman, Jacopo Godani and Shechter, plus pieces now in the repertoire by Jo Strømgren and Didy Veldman.


Creating an evening’s program comes with certain risks. “I know that you can fail,” says Pouffer, himself a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Complexions, among other companies. “I didn’t want Cedar Lake to become another Ailey, but I liked working with different choreographers there because it made me a more complex dancer.”


Pouffer has choreographed four dances for Cedar Lake. These casual, site-specific performances can incorporate elements from another genre, say fashion or photography. The dancers improvise between set cues and mix with the audience, which is encouraged to move about.


Pouffer also created dances for the upcoming Universal film The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon, due to be released this coming spring. Co-star Emily Blunt worked with Pouffer to portray a Cedar Lake dancer. It is a measure of how much Cedar Lake has arrived that the director, George Nolfi, felt that the company had the requisite edginess, chic and cool to give the heroine credentials in the screen version of the New York dance world. The company’s studio served as one location. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it sits between pristine galleries and old car repair shops—between the polished and the gritty. Like Cedar Lake itself.


Susan Yung is a New York dance writer and critic.



Ballet Paid Off
Some dancers know from the start they want a career in ballet. Not Jon Bond, pictured on the cover with Soojin Choi, a Cedar Lake dancer who recently returned to Korea. Bond had plans to become a triple threat. At 10, he began taking classes at Center Stage Dance Academy in Long Beach, California, and quickly succeeded on the competition circuit. He resisted ballet class, but both his mother and his dance teacher wanted him to develop strong technique. “They paid me to go,” he says. He stuck with it, grudgingly, while attending Orange County High School of the Arts. Looking back, Bond says ballet’s discipline helped him clean up his movement. “I was overly dramatic onstage,” he says. “My ballet teachers would say, ‘You’re dancing too hard.’ Ballet calmed that down a little.”


After graduation, Bond got an offer to join Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Dancing Through Barriers youth ensemble, and moved to New York. It was at DTH, he says, that he fell in love with ballet, through classes with former Berlin Opera Ballet star Eva Evdokimova. “Before, I thought ballet was repetitious,” he says. “But the imagery she used worked for me.” Port de bras, for instance, had given him trouble: “I just couldn’t connect my eyes with my arms,” he says. “She’d say, ‘Think about pushing clouds away and painting the air with your fingertips.’ I’m very visual and it clicked.” Now 23, Bond joined Cedar Lake after two years with DTH. The fit seems organic: The company can tap Bond’s flexible range of movement and the choreography offers constant challenges to a dancer with a voracious appetite for the new. “I get bored quickly,” Bond con­fesses. “I need to constantly be moving.” The ballet classes he resisted have wound up opening a door. “When I was younger, everyone told me I could work in L.A., but I belonged in New York doing concert dance,” he says. “Ballet was the foundation.” —Rachel F. Elson



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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.

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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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