A New Side of Carlos Acosta

Carlos Acosta. The name is almost synonymous with great male dancing, calling up an image of a performer whose combination of athletic dynamism, refined classicism and onstage magnetism have made him a superstar from just about the start of his career. Born and raised in Cuba, he began performing at 18 with English National Ballet in London. He moved to Houston Ballet in 1993, joined The Royal Ballet as a principal in 1998 and was a regular guest artist at American Ballet Theatre (among other companies) for several years. Despite the acclaim that has consistently come his way, Acosta hasn’t ever rested on his laurels. Like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, he is a star capable of drawing audiences to any performance bearing his name, and over the last decade, he has presented regular seasons of his own programs in London and abroad. These have ranged from Cuban-themed populist shows to adventurous contemporary work featuring film and experimental choreography, but Acosta’s own charismatic personality is always at their heart. He remains a favorite of audiences at The Royal Ballet, where he is staging his own production of Don Quixote, which runs from September 30 through November 6 at the Royal Opera House. After a long day of rehearsal, he talked to Pointe about the new production, what Don Quixote means to him, Cuba and lots more.

How did the idea of staging Don Quixote for The Royal Ballet come about?

Every classical ballet company should have a Don Quixote, but for some reason The Royal Ballet hasn’t had a production for more than 10 years. We have a lot of youngsters who really want to try out their technical skills—and that’s the ballet to do it. People practice wild jumps in class, but there’s nowhere to do that onstage, no place for a really free kind of dancing.

When Kevin O’Hare was in line for director here, he heard that I had said something about this, and he told me, “If I get the job, we should make it happen.” He got the job—and I took the challenge.

Have you ever staged a ballet before?
No! But I have a lot of curiosity about new experiences. It is the natural course for an artist to keep trying things, not to keep repeating things—that is artistic death. Baryshnikov is what an artist should be, adapting and evolving all the time.

You have been closely identified with Don Quixote as a dancer.

I’ve always loved it. I won the Prix de Lausanne with the solo at 16, and it’s the ballet I have performed the most—at American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opéra, Stuttgart, Cuba, Chile, The Royal. It has so many great characters, and so much dancing for the corps. And it’s just so much fun.

Are you particularly influenced by any one version?

Ben Stevenson created a version in Houston for me in 1995, and perhaps because it was made on me, it is the one I really like. He has a tremendous sense of humor, particularly in the pantomime. I am keeping quite a lot from that production, including the libretto and structure.

How much original choreography have you introduced?

A lot, but it’s all in a dialogue with Petipa; I’m not trying to be clever, to put it in leather jeans and be “contemporary.” I’ve kept pretty much the same vocabulary, using the tambourines, the seguidilla, the fans, the toreadors, the capes. But I’ve tried to ease the rigidity of the classicism. The ballet can look dated; it was created in the 1800s. Today we have a different humor and I want people to see the personalities, not the stereotypes.

How have you done that?

Mostly through the acting. I want the dancers to have real conversations, people shouting in the crowds, more naturalistic behavior. I keep telling the dancers, we are people onstage. I want them to relax, to walk normally.

What has the process been like?
Very challenging. The company splits its time between so many productions, and I needed to start quite early. It’s hard for them to rehearse for a premiere a year ahead of time, but I needed to have a sense of who could do it, and whether what I choreographed worked outside of my head!

Is there any Cuban influence in the ballet?
Not specifically, although of course I am the product of what I learned in Cuba. In the final pas de deux, for example, I like the Cuban version when they finish the first section with Basilio’s back to the audience, and Kitri facing forward. There is something sexy about it, seeing just his back and the profile. I want that in the ballet, and also the exuberance. You want to jump as high as you can jump, and no one is going to tell you not to.

Are you suggesting that the English style is more restrained?
A lot of English choreography, like Kenneth MacMillan’s, is more personal and intimate. That quality can bring warmth to Don Q, and I think the ballet also requires that. This company does the pantomime parts so well because they have that storytelling tradition in their DNA.

What has it been like to direct your colleagues?

I am very hands-on, but I depend a lot on everyone working with me, too. I don’t always have the answers—I haven’t set 10 ballets before. I’m learning as well.

You have written a novel that’s out this month, you just had a season at the London Coliseum and helped recreate an arts center in Havana. And you are still dancing. Why take on staging a full-length ballet, too?

I like to keep testing my limits. It gives me creative fuel. It’s all a lot of work, but it helps me to stay at the level I need to be. I’ve always been a worker.

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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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