Rowser and Owen Thorne rehearse "Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux." Photo by Heather Thorne, courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Nashville Ballet's World Premiere Gives Kayla Rowser the Chance to Finally Take on a Strong Black Female Character

Nashville Ballet's Kayla Rowser has performed a long list of leading roles: Aurora, Odette/Odile, Sugar Plum Fairy, the Firebird. But this weekend, Rowser takes on a new one created especially for her: the famous Dark Lady of William Shakespeare's sonnets, in artistic director Paul Vasterling's world premiere Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux. The ballet (running February 8-10) is based on the book Lucy Negro, Redux by poet Caroline Randall Williams. It explores the theory that Shakespeare's Dark Lady was a black woman, an actual London prostitute known as Black Luce or Lucy Negro.

For Rowser, who is African American, the ballet offers a rare opportunity to portray a character based on a woman of color. "Being able to explore a character who demands so much of who I am naturally, as well as through the gifts I have to share through ballet, is new to me," says Rowser. "It's different than being an African American woman dancing Odette or Aurora. Now what people are seeing is actually what is written. There's a lot of weight in that."



Kayla Rowser on Lucy Negro Redux www.youtube.com

Nashville Ballet is one of 21 companies participating in The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet, a partnership program spearheaded by the International Association of Blacks in Dance, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dance/USA. While many companies have made efforts to diversify their rosters, creating works centered around characters of color is another step towards greater inclusion. "I think ballet companies need to be looking at their stories and making sure they're relevant to the times we live in," says Vasterling. "It's really important for the art form to be thinking ahead and beyond the boundaries of those who came before us."

Creating "Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux"

Rowser and Owen Thorne in rehearsal for "Lucy Negro Redux." Photo by Heather Thorne, courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Vasterling's idea for the work grew out of reading Caroline Randall Williams' book, Lucy Negro, Redux. "I thought, wow, this could be a ballet, and immediately thought of Kayla" he says. The Nashville–based poet had been intrigued by a 2012 article about Dr. Duncan Salkeld, a university professor who discovered historical documents that led him to believe that Lucy Negro, a black brothel owner, was the mysterious lover referenced in Shakespeare's sonnets 127-154. "I got totally thrilled by the notion," says Williams, who then reached out to Salkeld and visited him in London. "We went to the places where Lucy would have been alive, walked the stones she and Shakespeare would have stepped on." Inspired, she penned a collection of poems from Lucy's perspective—and never imagined it would lead to a ballet.

When Vasterling reached out to Williams with his idea, she wanted to be sure that the ballerina playing Lucy was at a world-class level. "There are not a lot of people I could have trusted with this," she says. "But Paul is an ally and a visionary, and Kayla is exactly the dancer to do this role." Vasterling wrote up a libretto based on her poems, and the two went through his ideas together. "Caroline gave me the okay and the not okay, in terms of direction," he says.

They then reached out to Grammy Award–winning artist Rhiannon Giddens, a MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient, who composed the original score along with early music expert Francesco Turrisi. The music, a mix of early American and Renaissance themes, will be played live, interwoven with Williams' spoken word. "The whole process was very collaborative," says Giddens. "I'd send some themes and we'd discuss which character it would fit with. We found we got the most work done when we were all together in the room: poet, musicians, dancers."

Owning Her Power

Although much of Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux takes place during Shakespeare's time, the two-act ballet's narrative is nonlinear. "In my mind, it's about a modern woman and about the historical Lucy," Vasterling says. "Lucy rejects Shakespeare, who is obsessed with her, and then we end on an exploration of who we are underneath our skin. Ultimately, it's a story about a woman owning her power and understanding her own beauty."

That idea has not been lost on Rowser, who collaborated closely with Vasterling during the choreographic process. "There's the theme of otherness and self-acceptance, but also of not being concerned with whether someone truly accepts you," she says. When Vasterling floated the idea of dancing on flat, she insisted otherwise. "I feel most powerful in pointe shoes. I want to be able to showcase that I'm a classically trained black dancer."

Rowser says that having a chance to finally portray a strong, black character onstage is a lot to take in emotionally, and she considers it an honor. "This is such an unprecedented story to tell, especially for a ballet company in the South," she says. "I think the timing is perfect for where we are in the ballet world and where we are in society. I couldn't feel more ready for it than right now."

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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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