Nevada Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte's Crane/ing

Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT

Viva Las Vegas: Life at Nevada Ballet Theatre, Plus Audition Tips From Director Roy Kaiser

Most people associate Las Vegas with "the Strip," where tourists enter a fantasy universe of blackjack, Cher shows and cocktails. But beyond the razzle-dazzle is a metropolitan area of more than 2 million with its own ballet company, Nevada Ballet Theatre. An ensemble of 25 dancers, NBT is now led by Roy Kaiser, former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet.


Company History

The company displayed a maverick streak from the beginning. NBT's forerunner, Nevada Dance Theatre, was founded in 1972 by Vassili Sulich, a Folies Bergère performer who assembled ballet dancers from the Strip into a small professional troupe. In 1997, co-founder and co-chair Nancy Houssels helped transition it into Nevada Ballet Theatre with a more classical focus.

A group of six men and women in color-block leotards and short bodysuits gesture toward a woman at far stage left.

Nevada Ballet Theatre in Matthew Neenan's Until December

Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT

Kaiser took the reins in 2017 as its fourth director, although he never intended to head another company after spending his career dancing with PAB and then guiding it for 19 seasons. NBT won him over with its committed board, diligent dancers and a community hungry for dance. With its similar-sized ensemble and eclectic repertoire, he says that, in many ways, NBT reminds him of PAB when he joined it in 1979. Kaiser wants to expand the nonranked company to 30 and to increase performances.

The NBT Academy has 450 students, and NBT's education and outreach programs serve 20,000 children annually, mostly from the Las Vegas Valley's underserved areas.

Repertoire

Kaiser is shaping a repertoire that builds on the artists' individual strengths to "make every dancer see they are really a valued member," he says. NBT performs full-lengths such as Swan Lake, Ben Stevenson's Dracula and Septime Webre's Alice (in Wonderland). "I love the work of George Balanchine," says Kaiser, who welcomed Judith Fugate to stage The Four Temperaments prior to the pandemic. "That will always be a part of what we do here."

Kaiser wants to grow the audience through works that resonate with newcomers, such as Nicolo Fonte's Bolero. He also believes in the importance of new work fortifying NBT's identity, through choreographers such as Fonte and Matthew Neenan, and by giving company dancers, like Krista Baker, a chance to hone their choreographic craft on the main stage.

A male dancer (shirtless in black pants and sneakers) pli\u00e9s while balancing on his toes. He is holding a female dancer's wrist. She is in a gauzy white top and pants and is doing a piqu\u00e9 attitude on pointe.

Nevada Ballet Theatre dancers in a promotional image for its popular Choreographers' Showcase

Jerry Metellus, Courtesy NBT

Cirque du Ballet

For 12 years, NBT has collaborated with Cirque du Soleil for A Choreographers' Showcase, which joins performers from NBT and local Cirque shows to choreograph with and on each other. "It's like nothing else I've ever experienced," says Kaiser. The process results in a 90-minute show of 10 to 12 new works at Treasure Island's Mystère Theatre. It features a 10,000-square-foot stage with a rubber surface for buoyant tumbling, a revolving floor and four lifts.

"You actually get to work with acrobats, synchronized swimmers, contortionists, hip-hop dancers and breakers," says Baker. "It's really cool to be able to trade skills." Kaiser hopes to expand some of the works and adapt them to the ballet stage.

Studio Life

Kaiser teaches company class twice a week, including Zoom classes during the pandemic. "In a smaller company, it's all-hands-on-deck," he says, noting that dancers regularly have three roles in a performance. "I value professionalism and push the young dancers that will push themselves."

Casting decisions are based on what he needs rather than simply on seniority. Case in point: Following a year's apprenticeship, Michael Caye joined the company in 2019 and has danced soloist and principal roles on every program since. "If you're just out of school and you don't necessarily want to do corps work all the time and want to get more opportunities, come here," says Caye.

Baker, a 15-year veteran of NBT, agrees, saying that Kaiser's "door has always been open. He is absolutely the most open director I have worked for."

Four women, in deep red leotards and pointe shoes, encircle a male dancer also dressed in red. They gesture toward him with their right leg in tendu devant and right arm reaching forward with palm flexed upward.

Nevada Ballet Theatre in Nicolo Fonte's Bolero

Virginia Trudeau, Courtesy NBT

Audition Advice

NBT has held auditions in New York City and Las Vegas and has recruited from the schools of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet West. Artistic director Roy Kaiser also auditions dancers in company class after an approved video submission.

He looks for technical dancers who move big, with musicality and imagination. "There is nothing worse than a boring dancer," he says. "The audience will be engaged by your persona, what you put out there onstage. What's coming out of your heart? What is your face saying?" And an excellent work ethic? Nonnegotiable.

At a Glance

Nevada Ballet Theatre

Number of dancers: 25, plus 8 apprentices and 6 trainees

Length of contract: NBT recently joined AGMA and will soon be working toward a collective bargaining agreement.

Performances: Around 30, including Nutcracker and fall, winter and spring programs

Website: nevadaballet.org

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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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