Pam Tanowitz in the studio at New York City Ballet. Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

Modern Dance Choreographer Pam Tanowitz On Approaching The Ballet World as an "Outsider"

Pam Tanowitz is on a roll. Though the choreographer long ago made a name for herself in the modern dance world, ballet companies are finally starting to take notice of her work. Earlier this month, Tanowitz created her first of two ballets for New York City Ballet; in June she'll debut her first outdoor site-specific piece, conceived of with NYCB principal Sara Mearns; and tonight marks the premiere of Gustave Le Grey No. 1 at the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival, featuring dancers from Miami City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem.

We caught up with Tanowitz just before she jetted off to London for a tour with her own company, Pam Tanowitz Dance, to hear about her relationship to ballet technique, her upcoming premiere and her advice for young dancers.


Ballet as an Influence

"I was never going to be the dancer/choreographer that started with three-year-old ballet class, so I've always been an outsider to this world," says Tanowitz. "That's actually a big influence on my work." Tanowitz grew up studying modern dance in Westchester County, New York and later earned her degree in dance at Ohio State University, followed by an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. It was there that she became enamored by Merce Cunningham's technique, which continues to play a big role in her choreographic style. Yet ballet was always present: Not only did Tanowitz take classes, but she immersed herself deeply in dance history. "I watched tons of Balanchine and Robbins and Tharp," she says, adding that her favorite ballet of all time is Jerome Robbins' 1959 Moves.

MCB and DTH dancers in rehearsal for Ballet Across America

Courtesy The Kennedy Center

Tanowitz's deep understanding of ballet technique has given her the freedom to play with its conventions. "I've always been attracted to those ballet steps, and using them as a framework, or form, but then changing stuff within that," she says. Nevertheless, breaking into the ballet world wasn't a clearcut goal of hers. "My goal is to make dances and work, and to be challenged," she says. When asked when she became interested in working with ballet companies, Tanowitz answers, laughing, "When they hired me!"

On Working With Ballet Dancers

Though Bartók Ballet, Tanowtiz's recent premiere for NYCB, was her first time presenting her work on a major ballet stage, it wasn't her first time experimenting with ballet dancers. She worked with former American Ballet Theatre principal Ashley Tuttle in 2011 and 2012, participated in ABT's choreographic workshops in 2015 and 2017, and has choreographed on former MCB principal Patricia Delgado and on ballet dancers for Fall for Dance Festival.

NYCB in Bartók Ballet

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Collaboration plays a huge role in Tanowitz's creative process. "It's not just me coming in and telling them what to do," she says; rather, she relies on the dancers' expertise to figure out variations on placement and steps. "I ask them questions, and take ideas from their bodies and their history," she adds. Tanowitz's choreography is so formal and closely related to ballet, that she believes it's actually harder for ballet dancers to do. "My work feels familiar, but it's not quite the same," she says.

The Logistics of Ballet Across America 

This year's Ballet Across America series, which is celebrating women's leadership, has a unique setup. DTH and MCB are each presenting their own programs, but on May 31 they come together for a shared evening featuring highlights from both repertoires. Tanowitz's new ballet brings the troupes together: She worked with two dancers from each company, with periods of rehearsal in both New York and Florida.

"It's been hard logistically," she says. "In the studio I like things to be spur of the moment, but for this I had to do a lot of planning because of the time constraints." Nevertheless, when asked to participate she immediately said yes. "There aren't many women like Virginia Johnson and Lourdes Lopez running ballet companies, so I feel honored to be a part of this," she says. "And the dancers are so committed and interested in learning new material, which has been really exciting for me."

Though the dancers are new to Tanowitz, the rest of her collaborators are not: The piece features original music by Caroline Shaw and costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.

A Piece of Advice

Tanowitz's advice for young dancers is simple: "Just focus on the work in the studio and don't get sidetracked with the noise, or with trying to get too much too fast. Just focus on being a good artist." She adds that in the age of Instagram, tuning out distractions is even more crucial. "Just be patient," she says, "and work on your craft."

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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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