Ballerina Carlotta Brianza, center, the original Aurora in Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty. Courtesy Les Poissons Volants/Icarus Films

What to Watch: A New Documentary Explores the Life and Work of Marius Petipa

Here's something new to add to your quarantine watch list: Marius Petipa: The French Master of Russian Ballet, a new documentary by Icarus Films. Directed by Denis Sneguirev, the doc (which will be available for streaming and on DVD starting May 12) explores the life of ballet's most famous choreographer. Interviews with dance historians, writers and directors offer insights into his most well-known ballets and the geo-political climate that influenced them. It also looks at how current choreographers approach his work, from Alexei Ratmansky's meticulous reconstructions to Nacho Duato's adapted Sleeping Beauty. And there's plenty of dancing: the film includes rare archival footage, clips from recent performances (such as Ratmansky's Swan Lake at La Scala Ballet), and captures current dancers like Tiler Peck, Alban Lendorf, Polina Semionova and Cassandra Trenary tackling Petipa's choreography in rehearsal.

The documentary starts in 1847, with the 29-year-old Petipa's arrival as a premiere danseur at Russia's Imperial Theatre. Life in the St. Petersburg company was well-paid and quite cushy, but the Frenchman knew his dancing days were numbered and re-focused on choreography. He'd have to wait, staging ballets under Jules Perrot and Arthur St. León before his big break in 1862: The Pharaoh's Daughter, created for ballerina Carolina Rosati. The blockbuster ballet, which included live camels and lions onstage, was considered tacky by critics, but it was a hit with audiences and earned Petipa a promotion. He became chief choreographer eight years later, at 51.

A ballerina in a lavandar tutu lounges on the ground, while three other ballerinas in tutus and crowns stand above her in B+.

The original 1890 cast of fairies from The Sleeping Beauty at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater.

Courtesy Les Poissons Volants/Icarus Films

From there the film focuses primarily on three later ballets: La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. It digs into Petipa's flair for entertainment and spectacle, his smooth social skills, and his structural "pyramid" formula, with the ballerina serving as the ballet's pinnacle and a massive corps de ballet as the base. What's also apparent is how complacent Petipa could be—he had to be pushed out of his comfort zone to create his two biggest masterpieces. For The Sleeping Beauty, he transformed his choreography to adapt to Italian dancers' advancements in technique and pointework; he also found Tchaikovsky's groundbreaking music (which he didn't particularly enjoy choreographing to) challenging to navigate. And while Petipa initially passed most of the work of Swan Lake to his assistant, Lev Ivanov, he quickly starting crafting Odile's energetic scenes once he saw the originality and genius of his underling's white acts.

Then there's the question of authenticity, adaptation and preservation. A rare 1909 film of La Bayadère's "Indian Dance" is shown next to Rudolf Nureyev's 1992 version at the Paris Opéra Ballet, staged from his own recollections. Their remarkable similarity demonstrate the strength of ballet's "collective memory" as works are passed from generation to generation. (On a sidenote, the film steers clear of modern-day arguments concerning Orientalism and racial depictions in Petipa's work, which some may find disappointing.)

The documentary also goes into Staattsballett Berlin rehearsals for Duato's production of The Sleeping Beauty, where he "takes the dust away" by adding more fluidity and freedom to Petipa's classical steps, cutting mime and revamping some scenes entirely. For contrast, the filmmakers also follow Ratmansky to Harvard University's archives, where he pours through late 19th-century Stepanov notations of Petipa's work. "This is the language Petipa used," says Ratmansky. "I think this is important. It opens the door to an unknown language."

Marius Petipa: The French Master of Russian Ballet is primarily in French and Russian with English subtitles, which can make watching narrated dance sequences somewhat challenging. But this 52-minute documentary is a quick and enlightening dive into ballet history, and the dancing is worth rewinding for. Available for streaming on Vimeo ($4.99) starting May 12, and on Amazon Prime ($4.99) and iTunes; ($4.99) DVDs are available for purchase at and at

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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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