Made In Madrid

When Angel Corella walks into Cafe Mozart near Lincoln Center for his interview in mid-May, it’s a blustery, rain-soaked afternoon that has kept most New Yorkers inside. But one look at the American Ballet Theatre superstar, and you’d think it was a perfect spring day. In person, Corella bursts with the same effervescent sparkle he displays onstage: He can hardly wait to share the details of his new company, Corella Ballet.

The dancer and budding artistic director has just returned from Spain—and Corella Ballet’s first month of rehearsals. The 70-member troupe has been preparing for its official debut at the Teatro Real in Madrid in September. And while he was looking forward to dancing in ABT’s Metropolitan Opera summer season, Corella was also heartbroken to be away from his dancers at such an important time.

“I’d love to be there,” he says wistfully. “It’s a different atmosphere when the director is there, but I have a whole team.” He has a lot of faith in his staff, particularly Karemia Moreno, the woman he left in charge. In addition to being his childhood teacher, Moreno trained stars like Tamara Rojo, Joaquin De Luz and Lucia Lacarra.

Starting a company in his native Spain, which hasn’t had a classical company in nearly 20 years, has been an arduous seven-year process. The dream began when Corella was a teenager at the Victor Ullate School of Dance in Madrid, and realized he had few professional options. “Technically I could do anything, but there were only two companies in Spain and they were both modern,” says Corella. “I lost interest. I wanted to do modern too, but the reason I started dancing is because I wanted to be a classical dancer.”

By age 19, Corella was ready to hang up his shoes for good when a friend convinced him to compete in the Concours International de Danse de Paris. Not only did he win the gold medal, but he also caught Natalia Makarova’s eye. She set into motion a series of events that culminated in a soloist contract at ABT. A year later he was promoted to principal. Since then, he’s become one of the ballet world’s most illustrious stars.

“Of course I was very lucky that ABT took me,” says Corella. “But at the same time it was not a choice. I had to leave my friends and family if I was going to be a classical dancer.”

Corella’s exodus is a familiar story. From The Royal Ballet’s Rojo and Laura Morera to New York City Ballet’s De Luz, Spanish dancers are employed in some of the finest companies in the world. “There are a lot of dancers representing Spain in other countries,” says Corella. “They’re principals, soloists, even corps de ballet, and they have to leave their country to dance.”

In 2001, Corella decided to do something about it. He started the Fundación Angel Corella to lay the groundwork for a school as well as a company of the same ilk as ABT—a company with a classical repertoire that would also perform works by neoclassical and contemporary choreographers like George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe. In hopes of convincing the Spanish government that there is an audience for ballet, he also began touring Spain with a group of international stars including Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski, Irina Dvorovenko, Maxim Beloserkovsky, David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes.

“The shows became a huge hit,” says Corella. “Everywhere we did it, two or three months in advance the show was sold out. We had standing ovations every night, and we had to do extra codas because people kept clapping.”

Having shown that a demand for ballet exists in Spain, Corella’s next step was to get funding. After five years vying for government financial support in Barcelona, Corella was approached by a foundation run by the Spanish royal family. (Spain is a parliamentary monarchy under the rule of King Juan Carlos I.) The foundation donated a palace in Segovia, a tourist destination 45 minutes outside of Madrid that is being reinvigorated as a seat of culture. Full of palaces, cathedrals and historic architecture, Segovia makes an idyllic, bohemian setting for company headquarters. “It’s beautiful—like Versailles,” says Corella. “The palace is right at the entrance of town, in front of the lake, and behind is the mountains. It’s like scenery from Swan Lake.”

The royal family’s foundation will fund 70 percent of the company’s annual budget, with the remaining 30 percent coming from private sources. The buildings are currently under renovation to accommodate rehearsal space and facilities for a ballet boarding school—all scheduled for completion near the end of 2009. In the meantime, Corella has no intention of leaving ABT. He plans to divide his time between the two companies for as long as possible.

When it comes to the company name, Corella sheepishly concedes that it’s about lending star power. “For now, it’s Corella Ballet,” he says, explaining that he hopes one day it will become the National Ballet of Spain (a title conferred by the government) or the Royal Ballet of Spain (bestowed by the royal family). “My name as a person and a dancer is only there for the moment, but eventually it will be a company for the country and dedicated to the country.”

In the meantime, Corella Ballet has hit the ground running. In July, it danced a triple bill in an outdoor theater in Segovia that included Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Stanton Welch’s Clear (which Welch originally created for Corella and ABT principal Julie Kent) and Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto. In September at the Teatro Real, the company will make its official debut in Makarova’s full-length La Bayadère, with Corella and guests Paloma Herrera and Gillian Murphy. Corella is scheduled to dance in three of the seven performances. Following the Madrid engagement, the company will embark on a national and international tour.

If there was any doubt that Corella could meld an entirely new group of dancers into a solid performing entity in only a few months—while also dancing in NYC and Japan with ABT—the company’s rapid cohesion has put that to rest. A brand new company has no tradition to draw on, but Corella reports that the group gelled within the first week, and he’s delighted by how hard the dancers are working.

“We started rehearsals for La Bayadère, and everyone stayed in the room,” he recalls. “It was amazing that everyone stayed from 10 to 7 trying to learn everything that everybody else was doing. The kids are like puppies, trying to learn with their eyes really open. It’s very exciting.”

While Corella stresses that he isn’t anxious about the logistics of running a company, he admits that at first, the responsibility to his dancers was a bit overwhelming. “In your hands are the lives and careers of all these young dancers,” he says. “But at the same time, I take it with so much strength. I’m still a dancer. I know what it’s like to be in both positions, and it makes you understand both worlds—what you can let pass and other things you can’t let pass.”

For dancers, interest in the new venture has been massive. More than 1,500 hopefuls showed up at auditions for Corella Ballet in Madrid and Barcelona last February. The result is a company roster that includes dancers from the United States, Japan, Italy, Russia, Denmark, Canada, Korea and England, and Corella is still getting letters and e-mails from others who want to join. Along with full-time members—including Corella’s older sister and former ABT soloist Carmen Corella—he has also tapped international stars like his brother-in-law, Herman Cornejo, to be regular performers.

Though he hopes to add 10 more spots in upcoming seasons, Corella is more than content with the group he has now. “They are very disciplined, their work ethic is incredibly good,” he says. “In rehearsal for ‘Shades’ from the second act of Bayadère, they were all exactly the same after only a week! I was shocked. I stopped the rehearsal and said ‘Wow, I have to clap because I’ve seen other companies doing this and it’s one of the hardest things for the corps de ballet to do,’ and they did it perfectly. I was very proud.”

The next hurdle will be starting a ballet school for dancers ages 11 to 18. After that, Corella hopes to solidify the company’s place in Spain’s artistic consciousness. But whatever happens, Corella remains optimistic.

“Always in my career and throughout my life, it’s been full of surprises. I never expected that I was going to come to ABT, I never expected that I was going to become the dancer that I am, and it’s been more than a dream,” he says. “Whatever is on the road, it’s more than welcome. There are always ups and downs. And if there are downs, I’ll be ready.”

Kristin Lewis, a former editor at Dance Spirit magazine, is a writer in New York City.

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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.

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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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