Known By Heart

Gillian Murphy, a principal at American Ballet Theatre, performed her first shows of Twyla Tharp’s Known by Heart pas de deux in London this February. Critics described her as “stupendously sexy” and “serene in the most daring slides.” She will reprise the role this November at New York City Center. Here she talks about the rehearsal process and shares her advice for learning a new role.

Last November I began learning the “Junk Man” pas de deux from Known by Heart, a fun and funky Twyla Tharp ballet. There are a lot of factors to consider when trying to learn and interpret a part, but unless it’s a character-intensive role, like Juliet or Lizzie Borden, that requires extra research, I like to break the process down to four main steps:

1. Learn The Vocabulary And The Choreography
First, think big picture. Try not to get absorbed in the nuance of each moment until you’re comfortable with the material itself. For Known by Heart, the learning process was a bit trickier than usual since the piece has a percussive soundtrack with elusive musical cues and a deliberately quirky, non-classical dance vocabulary. However, I’ve worked with Twyla Tharp before in ballets such as  In the Upper Room and Rabbit and Rogue, so I was familiar with her gutsy sensibility as well as her use of parallel positions, varied levels (such as deep lunges) and flexed feet. We also had the invaluable staging expertise of both Stacy Caddell, an encouraging and inspiring coach on whom the role was created, and Susan Jaffe, an extraordinary ballerina and ABT’s original interpreter of the role. Stacy taught the material very clearly through counts, while giving memorable names such as the “Futomaki Roll” and “Oh Mighty Isis” to certain sequences to help keep us from getting lost in the repetitive score.
After only about eight hours of rehearsal, we had to set the piece aside for over a month to focus on rehearsing Alexei Ratmansky’s new Nutcracker. During that downtime, it was essential that I periodically run through the steps and counts in my mind to stay on top of the intricacies of the timing.

2. Develop Extra Stamina
Even if you are in good shape, each new piece can be uniquely “puffy.” I learned the “Junk Man” pas at the same time as several of my good friends, and we were always laughing with each other about the absurd noodle-like state we ended up in after a few minutes of attempting to run the piece. It’s an 11-minute pas with only short breaks for each dancer, and it was a very real challenge to keep the charged physicality at a high pitch while maintaining technical control underneath Tharp’s aerobic, earthy movement. It’s extremely strenuous, and without proper conditioning it would be next to impossible. The necessary stamina for any new role has to be built through repetition, learning to pace yourself and remembering to breathe fully. Many dancers gain additional stamina by swimming, biking or using the elliptical machine, but my favorite form of cross-training is gyrotonic. It’s gentler than a standard gym workout, but it has helped me to focus on alignment and core strength so that I don’t unnecessarily overwork muscles. I’ve also learned over time that stamina is not only about physical conditioning: It’s about willpower and minimizing the draining forces of nervous energy.

3. Embody The Spirit Of The Choreography
Choreographer Pina Bausch once said, “I’m not interested in how people move, I’m interested in what makes them move.” When I create a role, the “how” is the foundation but the “what” is the point of departure and interest. Once I’m comfortable with the material and my stamina, it’s time to delve deeper into the nuances within the piece and explore the role’s intention. ABT first set the “Junk Man” pas 13 years ago with Susan Jaffe and Ethan Stiefel, and I remember being amazed by their spectacular performances. That memory, coupled with Stacy’s guidance in rehearsals, offered invaluable insight into my character’s feisty spirit, as well as the contentious dynamic established between the couple. Stacy noted that the question of whether my part was essentially playful, spiteful or a combination of both was open to each dancer’s interpretation. In making my movement slightly flirtatious, I interpreted the character as initially enjoying the banter and power struggle with her partner until mounting tension and misunderstanding lead to genuine disdain. An alternative could have been to make her more overbearing and itching to pick a fight. In any character role, it’s vital to develop a personal motivation for each phrase while still trusting your intuitive response to the music.

4. Stay Positive!
Throughout your process, strive to have a positive frame of mind. I was coming back from ankle surgery as I was learning the piece, and my left foot had to get stronger through consistent physical therapy and a few months of healing before I was able to fully accomplish the difficult relevé sections and the slides on pointe in parallel fourth. I also had to walk through several rehearsals due to a strained right adductor. It can be demoralizing not to be able to dance, particularly if you feel as though you’re backsliding on stamina and the sense of momentum inherent in learning a new role. However, there is a lot to learn when injured, and it’s essential not to lose your sense of perspective. Don’t let a setback, a gray winter, or personal anxieties get you down.

Before our premiere on the opening night of ABT’s London tour, my partner Blaine Hoven and I ran the pas a few times, and each run-through was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating. I always have fun dancing with Blaine, and I have complete confidence in his partnering skills. Finally, on the night of our first show, I was able to turn my post-surgery doubts and pre-show nerves into extra adrenaline and excitement for the performance. Whatever your last-minute concerns, remember to relax, have faith in your preparation and be in the present moment. My secret weapons when I dance with ABT, aside from my brilliant partners, are that my costumes are made to fit beautifully by wardrobe mistress Caryn Wells, and that Riva Pizhadze does inspired hair and stage makeup right before each show. These final touches are essential to making me feel completely transported into each role. Blaine and I enjoyed every moment of bringing Twyla Tharp’s vision of abandon, contention and spontaneity to life.

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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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