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Étoile at Work

Marie-Agnès Gillot makes her first piece for the Paris Opéra Ballet.
Though Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot has been experimenting with choreography for a few years, she was surprised when artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre proposed she make a work on the company. “It’s not something I dreamed of or expected,” Gillot says. “But immediately the ideas started coming.”

Her new ballet, Sous Apparence, will premiere at the Palais Garnier this October. It’s a collaboration with musical dramaturg Laurence Equilbey—who helped her choose the collaged score, which includes works by Anton Bruckner, Morton Feldman and György Ligeti—and visual artist Olivier Mosset. “One of my thoughts about the piece was that it would address the various wars we have in our lives; in dance especially, we have to fight so much,” Gillot says. “Olivier’s response was to create a big sculpture for the middle of the stage, like the barriers they put in the street to stop trucks during a war. We call it ‘The Toblerone,’ because it looks like one!”

The work’s title, which loosely translates to “A Semblance Of,” was another jumping-off point for Gillot. “It came from the phrase, ‘Les apparences sont innocent de nos erreurs,’ ” she says. “It means that we cannot tell, from peoples’ outer appearances, what mistakes they have made. We have the power to hide our errors. But in the ballet, the idea is to go underneath that mask.”

Gillot’s cast, which she and Lefèvre chose together, includes étoile Laëtitia Pujol and several promising soloists. “I want them to be completely androgynous,” Gillot says. “The men are wearing pointe shoes—they were all very excited about ordering their first pairs!—but they won’t be doing caricatures of women’s steps on pointe. My goal is to create a new language.”

 


Joffrey Revisits The Green Table
The Joffrey Ballet commemorates the 80th anniversary of Kurt Jooss’ antiwar masterpiece The Green Table this October, performing the ballet as part of its “Human Landscapes” program. “There are some ballets that don’t age well, but this is not one of them,” says the Joffrey’s Fabrice Calmels, who returns to the role of Death, which he danced when the company last mounted the piece five years ago. “It’s an iconic, powerful work of art.”

Eerie and macabre, The Green Table was inspired by the totentanz, a series of medieval images depicting people dancing with death. Jooss transformed it into a metaphor for the horrors of modern war. His Death is hypnotic and commanding, a robotic skeleton claiming victim after victim.

Calmels first learned the part from Jooss’ daughter Anna Markard, who set the ballet on companies around the world after her father’s death in 1979. “This ballet was in Anna’s heart—she lived it for years,” Calmels says. “I appreciate how meticulous she was with the details, because it is such a detailed ballet. The first time I danced Death, we worked on every finger, on the tiniest aspects of posture. The choreography is so distinctive that eventually it overtakes you. It becomes a part of you.”


In With the New at PNB
This year marks Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 40th anniversary. “It’s hard to know how to program that,” says artistic director Peter Boal. “Do you sit back and look again at the grandest achievements you’ve reached over time? Or do you roll the dice and do something completely new?”

Boal opted for new. This November, PNB presents an all-premiere program that includes works by Mark Morris and company members Andrew Bartee, Kiyon Gaines and Margaret Mullin. “It’s a bit of a risk, of course, and not just in the sense that it’s four world premieres—these are also the first works Andrew and Margaret have ever made for the main company,” Boal says. (Gaines choreographed his first mainstage work for PNB, M-Pulse, in 2008.) “But though they’re young, they’ve both made original, well-crafted pieces for our choreographer’s workshop. I think they’re ready for the big time.”

 All three of the company members choreographing for the program are also rehearsing Morris’ piece. “Mark is hilarious, and in rehearsals he’s constantly blurting out things like, ‘Oh, that was such an awful step I just made—you can have that for your ballet, Andrew!’” Boal says. “But he’s also been talking to the three of them about their music choices. It’s not a peer-to-peer relationship, but at the moment they are a team of choreographers sharing this company, and they’re making the most of that.”


Three’s Company in Las Vegas
Nevada Ballet Theatre opens its first season at the new Smith Center in Las Vegas this October with a little help from its friends. The company will collaborate with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet West to perform Balanchine’s Jewels, with Ballet West dancing “Emeralds,” NBT, “Rubies” and PNB, “Diamonds.” In a nod to Jewels lore—legend has it that some dazzling Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry inspired Mr. B to create the ballet—Van Cleef & Arpels will sponsor the performances.


A Premiere by One of NYCB’s Own
New York City Ballet corps member Justin Peck will present his second work for NYCB—and his first ballet to premiere in the company’s home theater at Lincoln Center—this October. The work, a collaboration with popular singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, will build on Tales of a Chinese Zodiac, which Peck made for the New York Choreographic Institute in 2010.


Ratmansky’s Latest for ABT
A new work by resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, will highlight American Ballet Theatre’s fall season at New York City Center. The ballet is to be the first in a trio of abstract pieces, all set to Shostakovich, which will be presented together as an evening-length work during ABT’s spring 2013 season. It will join an extremely small group of abstract full-length ballets. 

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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