Of Myths and Men

MYTH: The guys in ballet are all gay.

“Let’s just say guys in ballet are guys. And some are gay, and they’re great; some aren’t, and they’re great. They’re all just humans, like the rest of us.” —Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

“San Francisco is known for its gay community, but there are still straight people who live in San Francisco! So I look at it that way: It’s just like life, or the world. Some people are gay, and some people are straight.” —Prince Credell, dancer, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet

 

MYTH: You have to wear tights all the time.

“Most of us don’t wear tights all the time. Maybe in schools, but we wear shorts and sweatpants in a company environment. In class and rehearsals, you have to maintain a modicum of professionalism and have things that are not going to interfere with the choreography or be a distraction. But no, we don’t all have to wear tights.” —Stephen Legate, principal, San Francisco Ballet

“The costuming can really change quite often in ballet. You get to wear pants and shorts. A lot of character costumes [have] historical pant legging–type things, depending on the period. But you look at football players, and they are wearing pretty tight clothing. Yeah, they have pads on, but that is serious spandex they are wearing too. You look at runners, or sprinters, they are all wearing tight unitards. Wrestlers are another prime example of another sport with very tight clothing. At some point you come to realize that the tighter the clothing, the greater the range of motion.” —Michael Levine, dancer, The Joffrey Ballet

MYTH: It’s a lot easier to be a male ballet dancer.

“The technique for men, post-Nureyev, post-Baryshnikov, has really come to equal that of women. In the past, men were the lifters, the ‘toters around of women,’ and that’s not the case anymore. Men have featured roles. Stanton Welch here in Houston is a big proponent of men being men, being very strong and being able to dance on their own.” —Simon Ball, principal, Houston Ballet

“In the larger world, it’s harder because people accept women being ballerinas a lot more than they accept men being dancers. So you are constantly struggling against those men-in-tights [stereotypes]. Trying to make people understand the art, the physicality and the masculine side of it is difficult. And growing up in a small town, people were like, “You do what?” They didn’t understand, and I was constantly trying to show them what being a dancer is. They accept it when it is a young girl, but when it is a teenage boy going off to do ballet, you get a funny look.” —Michael Levine, dancer, The Joffrey Ballet

MYTH: There are no male stars in ballet anymore.

“As far as technique and charisma onstage go, there are men out there now who match and exceed those people that you think of as the stars of the ‘70s, when ballet had a large following. [Today’s men] have the artistry matched with the technique that makes you want to watch a person. It’s a very virile type of charisma and energy that makes you want to watch a man onstage, which Carlos Acosta definitely has. Johan Kobborg is another wonderful artist who comes to mind. The world of ballet and men is well and strong.” —Simon Ball, principal, Houston Ballet

“An unlikely star like Joaquin De Luz is a star to me. Audiences aren’t familiar with him yet, but every time he goes out there, he’s just so exciting. Somebody like Daniel Ulbricht, who is a soloist with New York City Ballet. These are phenomenal dancers. And I think that somebody like Angel Corella and Jose Manuel Carreño. These are stars. I think that human beings in general are just more accessible than they were in previous eras, and it probably killed stardom, but it makes for better individuals.” —Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

MYTH: Being a male ballet dancer is all about doing tricks.

“That’s not true! Well, for me, the kind of dancer that I am and the kind of dancing that I do, it doesn’t require that at all. I do more contemporary work, so it’s really not about tricks, like jumping and turning, at all. I don’t want to sound cliché, but it’s about honesty and integrity and trying to show that onstage. Even in classical ballet, there are things that require tricks like Le Corsaire or Don Q and then there are more romantic ballets like Giselle or Swan Lake that are totally about portrayal and the dance. It’s about a role.” —Prince Credell, dancer, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet

“The virtuosic male technique demands that you be able to do a certain amount of what are called ‘tricks.’ But the actual amount of time that you get to use those tricks in repertoire, on a day-in, day-out basis is very little. If you’re doing Basil in Don Q, then you’re putting some of those tricks to use, for sure, and it’s necessary that you be able to do them. But that’s one ballet out of maybe 25 in a season. And the rest of the time you’re not. So that’s just a small portion of the vocabulary that’s required. It’s most important to be as well-rounded as possible and that includes acting ability and modern dance ability, contemporary dance ability and the artistic intelligence to put it all together.” —Stephen Legate, principal, San Francisco Ballet

 

Interviews by Jocelyn Anderson; Peter Boal interview by Kristin Lewis

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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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