Silvia Saint-Martin dancing her free variation from Jerome Robbin's Other Dances. The dancer competed against seven of her peers to earn the one coveted opening for a première danseuse. Photo by Svetlana Loboff, Courtesy Paris Opéra Ballet.

Inside the Paris Opéra Ballet's Concours de Promotion, Dancers' One Annual Chance to Rise the Ranks

Dancing with the Paris Opéra Ballet normally entails performing to sold out crowds and admirers from around the world. But imagine dancers attempting to give their best performance in an opera house that's eerily quiet and closed to the public. That's what happened on November 6 and 8 when dancers competed in front of a jury, with only a handful of colleagues and journalists in attendance. Welcome to POB's annual "concours de promotion," or competitive promotional exam. In a company that employs 154 dancers, it is the only way to climb the ranks.

Outsiders are often baffled by this system because it is so different from how other companies promote their dancers. This year, Pointe was invited to take an inside look at this high-stakes event and spoke with two of the 14 dancers awarded promotions that go into effect in January 2020.



Background

The concours (pronounced con-core), as it's known for short, was created in 1860 based on the advice of Paris Opéra Ballet School teachers, including Marie Taglioni (yes, that Taglioni of Romantic ballet fame). It is part of a much larger heritage of exams still active in France that are used for awarding job titles in a variety of professions.

Dancers perform in front of a jury composed of POB personnel, including artistic director Aurélie Dupont and company dancers. For the latter, certain conditions apply, such as a minimum of eight years dancing with the company, not competing themselves and not coaching any of the competitors. Two dance professionals outside POB are also required to form the jury. This year, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj stepped in to adjudicate. The jury members rank the dancers based on two rounds of variations.

Preparing for the Concours

There is no obligation to participate in the concours, but many dancers do. Members of the corps de ballet, who may not have been seen in solo roles, are particularly eager to assert themselves.

Dancers must balance the fall season's busy rehearsal and performance schedule with designated coaching sessions for the concours. Each rank of the company is assigned a different preparatory coach, including former POB dancers or members of the company's teaching staff. For example, Bolshoi-trained Andrey Klemm, who regularly teaches class at the POB, helped prepare six men of the corps to perform a variation from Don Quixote.

Francesco Mura jumps into the air with his legs pressed togetherin fifth position. His costume includes green and gold tunic and pants.

Francesco Mura dancing his free variation, Solor's Act II variation from Rudolf Nureyev's La Bayadère. Mura has been promoted to premier danseur, starting in January 2020.

Svetlana Loboff, Courtesy Paris Opéra Ballet.

The Variations

Every rank is assigned an "imposed variation" selected by the artistic director. This year's concours included choreography by Serge Lifar, August Bournonville and Rudolf Nureyev. All dancers are costumed accordingly and perform to live accompaniment.

Artists later perform a variation of their own choosing from the company's large repertoire. Asked about her free variation, Silvia Saint-Martin, who was promoted to the coveted rank of première danseuse, notes, "I chose the first variation from Jerome Robbins' Other Dances because I really wanted to show the freedom, imagination, simplicity and pleasure of dancing—and this variation allows for all of that."

The decision was less obvious for Francesco Mura, also promoted to premier danseur, who admits that he changed his mind a dozen times before settling on Solor's variation from Act II of La Bayadère. "It's the character that appealed to me especially, and I wanted to work on the artistic side of things while maintaining an explosive level of technique."

Understanding Job Titles

Once dancers are hired in the corps de ballet at POB, they hold a permanent contract. This means that outside a serious transgression, dancers are employed indefinitely until retirement at age 42. This is no guarantee of rising out of the corps or being cast regularly, but it does represent a level of job security rarely seen in the dance world. Many company members choose to spend their entire careers at POB, resulting in only a small number of job openings.

The company's ranks include the quadrilles, who are entry level corps members, followed by coryphées. Although still considered part of the corps, sujets are often seen in soloist roles. Premiers danseurs are high-ranking soloists, and often perform principal roles. The highest position, étoile, cannot be awarded through the concours (it is by nomination only).

Within this hierarchy, a dancer's advancement is not simply based on performance: there must be an opening at the next level up. For example, première danseuse Muriel Zusperreguy retired on November 23, which created an opening during this year's concours. Eight female sujets competed for the one available post of première danseuse, awarded to Saint-Martin.

Pros and Cons

This can be frustrating for dancers who wait long intervals for advancement, not to mention those who perform poorly during the concours. Asked how not being promoted in past concours affected him, Mura replies "I was very sad…but it also allowed me to understand the real value of what I give to this art and it motivated me even more." Saint-Martin echoes similar sentiments and underlines the importance of staying focused on personal goals.

On the upside, casting is not always limited to one's rank. This fall, Hohyun Kang, a talented quadrille, performed alongside étoile Léonore Baulac in William Forsythe's Blake Works I (incidentally, Kang was promoted to coryphée during the concours).

The event is also an excellent opportunity to see what members of the corps can really do when coached in advanced variations. Although not yet seen onstage this season, Nikolaus Tudorin, a quadrille from Australia, gave a stunning performance as the "Man in Brown" during his variation from Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. Tudorin, who auditioned four times before being offered a permanent contract at POB, was promoted to coryphée. He is proof that while there may not be a meteoric path to the top at POB, methodical hard work and patience do pay off for many of the dancers who are willing to wait.

Congratulations to all 14 dancers who were promoted this concours, listed below.

Premièr Danseuse: Silvia Saint-Martin

Premièr Danseur: Francesco Mura, Pablo Legasa

Sujet: Letizia Galloni, Caroline Osmont, Naîs Duboscq, Florent Mélac, Simon Le Borgne, Thomas Docquir

Coryphée: Hohyun Kang, Célia Drouy, Clémence Gross, Antonio Conforti, Nikolaus Tudorin

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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