Making a Role Your Own

When Christopher Wheeldon made Carousel (A Dance) for New York City Ballet seven years ago, Seth Orza was in the corps dancing a merry-go-round horse. Later, he graduated to a demi-soloist role and became a man. This year, now a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Orza performed the lead, Billy.

Short on patience and luck, Billy wins the heart of Julie, an innocent and adventurous young woman in this 15-minute ballet based on the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Wheeldon created Billy on Damian Woetzel, then a principal and celebrated virtuoso. “It’s a pressure and an honor,” Orza says of assuming a role he witnessed being made. “The dance is full of Damianisms. He always makes it look easy.” But how­ever trying it may be to take on the part of someone you have long admired, “That,” says Orza, “is what ballet is all about.”

Actually, it’s what ballet was all about. For decades, you could watch a dance being born, take its place in the repertoire, then spawn new versions through new casts—all within a single company. Dances didn’t usually change location: When they moved, it was down the generations. “Tribal” is how Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal characterizes the process. “One dancer standing next to another just the way people would gather and tell stories. One leg had to show another leg how it’s done.” 

But in the 21st century, “viral” is more like it. New works aren’t passed down so much as they are passed sideways—from city to city and continent to continent. Increasingly, choreographers are free agents, and after a short period in the company of origin, their dances show up everywhere. Carousel entered the repertoire of three companies in spring 2009.

Ballet globalization makes less common the challenges Orza felt taking on a role created on Woetzel. Orza knows a “Damianism” when he sees one because he watched the older dancer in class and rehearsal for years. But Thomas Nicholas and Victoria Jaiani, the leads in the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Carousel this spring, were uncertain which NYCB dancers were on the video they studied when they learned the roles. (A quick check revealed they were the original cast, Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli.)

Even when a new ballet is passed down within a company, there’s no guarantee of leg-to-leg learning. NYCB principals Wendy Whelan and Janie Taylor are close friends. “I really love her,” Taylor says of Whelan and Whelan of Taylor, separately and unprompted. Taylor was Whelan’s alternate in Concerto DSCH, the much-hailed 2008 ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, onetime Bolshoi head and current American Ballet Theatre artist in residence. But when it came time for Taylor’s DSCH debut this spring, she rehearsed the role as if it were Jerome Robbins’ 1951 The Cage or any other piece of the canon, working in the studio with ballet master and video.

Whelan had hesitated to offer her approach to Taylor, remembering her own experience preparing for the massive Balanchine Festival in 1993 when the original dancers bom­barded her with criticism and advice. “It was like being in prison,” she recalls. She didn’t want to do that to Taylor. “Out of respect,” she says, she stayed out of her friend’s way. “I knew if she needed me, she’d call, and I also knew that on a moment’s notice Janie can come up with the most intricate interpretation.” Eventually Taylor did call—to get help with her hair.

Dancers today are eager for autonomy. They want to make their own way. They understand independence as the path to artistry, one reason they like having dances made on them. “It’s their body that will create the imprint and their intelligence and musicality that will affect the outcome,” Boal says. Most second cast dancers say they eventually worry less about not measuring up than about not being sufficiently different from the original. “The first time I did it,” Orza says of Billy, “I was trying to copy Damian. But Damian is Damian.”

Taking the leap from understudy to live performer, Taylor explains, requires that you distinguish the original dancer from the dance so you can make room for yourself. “Usually the person a piece is made on will do it for years before someone else does,” she says. “So you’re watching and learning and enjoying what’s been created, not necessarily thinking about what you’re going to do. But once you’re performing it, it’s not going to work until you do it like you.” 

The choreographer can help. Taylor attended enough of the formative rehearsals for Concerto DSCH to be able to imagine Ratmansky showing certain steps. “It was a comfort picturing what something was supposed to look like,” she says. The choreographer is more able to preserve the dance’s spirit through all its iterations than the original dancers—or even the stagers. These “servants to the choreographer’s vision,” as NYCB ballet master Jean-Pierre Frohlich eloquently puts it, attend every one of the budding dance’s rehearsals and record the choreographer’s every move and directive. Yet no matter how good the stager, the choreographer is always better.

“That’s what we prefer—to get it straight from the choreographer,” Boal says. “We’ve had some remarkable stagers, who have done the most thorough job we could have asked, but there’s nothing like the day the choreographer walks into the studio. It’s hard as a stager, with your different personality”— Boal has served in this capacity many times—“to get that energy and freshness from the dancers. It’s stunning to have the original mind and body behind the movement. A guy like Wheeldon can accomplish so much in a week, it blows your mind.”

Shortly before opening nights all over the world, Wheeldon makes a point of showing up to rehearse new casts. “He’s got a detailed memory of what he’s created and can show every part,” Boal says. “He brings real inspiration to the dancers.”

Wheeldon thinks of the dancers the way they think of themselves—as individuals. And he can tell you individually what they’re like. “Victoria,” he says of the Joffrey’s Jaiani, “brought a wonderful, willowy abandon to the Carousel pas de deux, which made it very breathless. It had great sweep.

“Fragile and unbalanced are not words I’d associate with Carla Körbes, Orza’s partner. Trying to get that trepidation, that younger side of the character, to come across was a challenge because Carla’s a very confident dancer, very present, very pure. She could dance the “Diamonds” pas de deux in her sleep.”

Nicholas, who dances Billy at the Joffrey, “is on the verge of great things,” says Wheeldon. “But he found it a challenge to be weighty in his movements. He’s a very nice guy, and I wanted him to be dangerous.”

The dancers cherished Wheeldon’s input, committing his advice to memory. Jaiani remembers him telling her, “Find the simple farm girl in you, Victoria. Think apple pie and ice cream.” To Nicholas, he said, “She’s running away, and in the distance you can see her mother’s house. She keeps trying to escape to that place of innocence, and you keep pulling her back.”

For the dancers, the best part was the opportunity to show the choreographer what they could bring to the role. “He recognized that dancers in New York and San Francisco were going to do it differently,” says Nicholas. “There’s this moment in the pas de deux when the two characters really connect. The man touches the woman’s chin, makes their eyes meet and caresses her head. I was trying to do it exactly how I saw it on the video and Chris said, ‘Just make sure you’re looking at her the way you’d look at a person you were in love with.’ It was freeing to take her head in my hand without thinking of the last time it was done.” 
 

Apollinaire Scherr reviews dance for The Financial Times and has a blog on ArtsJournal.com.

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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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