Director's Notes: District of Dreams

The Washington Ballet was always a hometown favorite. Under Septime Webre, now it’s also a top national troupe.

An all-Tharp program. World premieres by Edwaard Liang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. A new ALICE (in wonderland). The Washington Ballet’s last season was full of creativity and virtuoso performances. It’s a long way from the 1970s troupe Mary Day began as an outlet for her students. Under the ebullient artistic direction of Septime Webre, the company now holds its own in a city that’s accustomed to regular visits from the Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Webre, who grew up in Texas, was supposed to become a lawyer. But he followed his sister to ballet school, and when he got a job dancing for Ballet Austin after college, he deferred law school and never looked back. Webre later danced with American Repertory Ballet, where he served as resident choreographer during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, then became the company’s artistic director in 1993. He also apprenticed with Merce Cunningham.

When TWB’s board of directors approached him in 1999, Webre says, “I knew of the company by reputation, knew of Mary Day’s great influence on the ballet world. And I knew that TWB had grown to be a very interesting company.”

Pioneering teacher Mary Day co-founded The Washington School of Ballet with Lisa Gardiner in 1944. Day trained many great dancers, including Amanda McKerrow, Kevin McKenzie and Virginia Johnson. TWB made the shift from student troupe to professional company in 1976, and its reputation grew during the late 1970s and ‘80s with Singaporean neoclassical choreographer Choo-San Goh as artist-in-residence.

The organization has blossomed since Webre took the helm. The company’s annual budget has grown from about $2.8 million to approximately $9.5 million. Webre has cherry-picked some top dancers, such as Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki, from the ballet competition circuit where he’s often a judge. The school has expanded from one location with 350 students to three locations and a total of around 900 students.

“What I’ve tried to do is grow the organization with the partnership of the board, staff and dancers,” says Webre. “Mary Day’s concept was a very fine school, and a company of classical dancers who cherished creativity. She always produced a lot of new work, so it was a real incubation place. I try to retain that central DNA.”

Webre, however, has greatly expanded the repertoire. While Day avoided the traditional full-lengths because the Kennedy Center has long booked world-famous companies that bring the classics to DC, Webre has brought in such ballets as Anna-Marie Holmes’Don Quixote and Bournonville’s La Sylphide. He feels that the Kennedy Center’s big productions, rather than overshadowing the dance scene in DC, have enlivened it. “I think our audiences are smarter, better educated, have higher expectations here. They view us as a stronger company as a result of seeing that we can tackle this kind of repertoire with credibility.”

The company’s growth has not come without pain. The dancers decided to unionize in 2004, and a labor dispute over the initial union contract in 2005 resulted in program cancellations (including the lucrative Nutcracker) that cost the company well over $700,000. “We grew so quickly in my first five years here. I think the infrastructure around the dancers and the company and how we do business didn’t grow as quickly as our activity did,” Webre says. “Their decision to unionize was a logical one, and in retrospect a very good one. Our organization is much healthier now.” Webre feels healing from the dispute came about through returning to work. “Once the contract was signed, we really came back together in cooperation and collaboration. And I think the bonds were rebuilt in the studio.”

During the recent economic downturn, city funding of TWB has dropped 90 percent—from about $1 million pre-recession to $100,000 in 2009. Fortunately, ticket sales have increased and philanthropy has held steady. Webre has steered TWB away from cutting dancers or programming, instead focusing on streamlining company administration. “We do a lot with a little, and take an entrepreneurial approach,” he says. “We’ve got to be scrappy, and it’s really working.”

Looking ahead, Webre is excited about a new addition to the repertoire: the American Experience, a series of ballets based on great works of American literature. It started with Webre’s The Great Gatsby in 2010, and the spring of 2013 will bring his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Other choreographers will be brought in to create future ballets for the project.

In addition to the growing repertoire, the company has blossomed through the organization’s commitment to community engagement, fulfilled by a partnership with DC public schools, and the school’s studios at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Center (THEARC) in southeast Washington, a historically underserved community. The success of both programs, says Webre, has bolstered TWB’s audience, student and donor populations. “The community of Washington, DC, cares about TWB not just because of our performances onstage, but because we’re contributing to the social fabric of the city.”

At A Glance

The Washington Ballet

Location: Washington, DC

Size: 23 dancers in the main company, 11 in the studio company

Height/body type: There are no expressed limitations, but Webre prefers a “lean, athletic look.”

Starting salary: $810.90/week for the first year, $926.72/week second year

Length of contract: 34 weeks

Touring: Occasional international tours


Audition Tip

“Check your insecurities at the door. You’ve got to take command of the studio, even if there are 80 other dancers around you. Ballet is best executed when dancers have a sense of authority. You’ve got to approach your day like a ballerina or a danseur noble in order to be one.” —Septime Webre

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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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