Recent Honors

A roundup of recent honors in the ballet world

  • Muriel Maffre, a former principal with San Francisco Ballet who now performs as a guest artist with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
  • In October, Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Olivier Wevers received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship for 2008, which includes a cash award of $7,500.
  • The Oakland Ballet received one of Bank of America’s Neighborhood Builder Awards in November. The national award comes with a grant of $200,000 and a nonprofit leadership development program.
  • The Arts & Science Council of Charlotte, NC, granted lifetime achievement awards to North Carolina Dance Theatre Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Associate Artistic Director Patricia McBride.
  • Colorado Council on the Arts gave the Colorado Ballet the 2009 Colorado Masterpieces award. The $55,000 grant will support a tour. —Veronika Pashkin

 

Premieres

 

  • Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s new full-length ballet Marie premieres February 26 and runs through March 8 at Houston’s Wortham Theater Center. Set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, the story is inspired by the tragic life of France’s queen Marie Antoinette.
  • In celebration of Valentine’s Day, Ballet Nouveau Colorado presents a program called “Love” February 6–15. The evening offers new pieces from Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, Canadian choreographer Mark Godden and Ma Cong (winner of BNC’s 2008 21st Century Choreography Competition). Each worked with Colorado’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop to combine movement with words.
  • For their avant-garde AustinVentures StudioTheater Project March 26–April 3, Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills is choreographing a new work entitled Angel of My Nature. The ballet is set to trip-hop music, a genre which fuses hip hop and electronica. “The music is like nothing we’ve ever danced to before,” says dancer Allisyn Paino. “It really gives the movement a completely different pop flair.” —Jennifer Stahl

 

 

Joffrey’s New School

 
The Joffrey Ballet launched the Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet, in January. Led by Joffrey’s artistic director Ashley Wheater, the school is located in the Joffrey Tower in Chicago where the company is based. The Academy offers various training programs for students ages 3 and up, including open community classes, a pre-professional training program and a trainee program for 17- to 20-year-olds transitioning into the profession.

Although no discussions between the new academy and the already established Joffrey Ballet School in New York City have taken place as of press time, George de la Peña, artistic director of the New York school, says, “We are hoping to have a mutually supportive relationship in which we work together to return to Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino’s original idea of having a fantastic school that feeds directly into the company.” —JS

 

News, Moves and Celebrations

 

  • The School of American Ballet celebrates 75 years in 2009. Several events will take place around New York City, including a presentation on Balanchine at the Guggenheim Museum in late February featuring Suki Schorer with SAB students.
  • In celebration of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 40th anni­versary, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will display DTH costumes, videos, sets and even a 3D-puzzle to give an inside look into the company’s history. A traveling version of the exhibition is currently being developed for 2010.
  • Former Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principals Jiabin Pan and Ying Li are starting a new ballet company in Suzhou, a growing city one hour west of Shanghai. The Suzhou Ballet will be only the sixth ballet company in China.
  • South African choreographer Sean Bovim will debut his new company, Bovim Ballet, at the Artscape Theatre Centre in Cape Town February 3–8 with a full-length work entitled Tango Nights.
  • After two years as ballet director for Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company, Elisabetta Terabust passed the baton to former Kirov Ballet director Makhar Vaziev in January.
  • Robert Hill, a former principal with The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet,  became artistic director of Orlando Ballet in January. —Meghan Quinlan

 

 

Ups and Downs in Difficult Times


When the world struggles financially, the arts are often hit the hardest as private donations and audience numbers decrease. Due to the recent economic downturn, Ballet British Columbia was forced to lay off all of its dancers, some administrative staff, and Artistic Director John Alleyne in November. (As of press time their rehiring was dependent on Nutcracker ticket sales.) New York City Ballet had to scale down its upcoming July season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center from three weeks to two. In order to cut costs, Oregon Ballet Theatre replaced live music with a recorded score for 10 of its Nutcracker performances.

Companies have found several ways to fight back. In October, the Scottish Ballet hosted a costume sale, earning almost $30,000, which was used to fund their move to new studios, education activities and an upcoming tour. For their fall season at New York City Center, American Ballet Theatre increased the ticket prices of premium seats while decreasing the price of rear-mezzanine seats. Los Angeles Ballet has explored various group and family packages, as well as partnerships with other local arts organizations.
Yet it’s not all bad news. In January Miami City Ballet launched a multi-year collaboration with The Cleveland Orchestra. The West Australian Ballet even expanded their budget for the 2009 season, hiring 10 more dancers and working with the government to obtain more rehearsal space. —JS

 

 

In Memoriam

 

The Joffrey Ballet Co-Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Gerald Arpino passed away October 29 at age 85. He
performed with the Joffrey in its early years and became resident choreographer in 1961, creating more than a third of its repertoire. Arpino choreographed Billboards, America’s first full-evening ballet set to rock music, and was also the first choreographer to have four of his ballets presented at the White House. He was associate director for many years and, after Robert Joffrey’s death, served as artistic director from 1988–2007.

Rosella Hightower died at the age of 88 in Cannes, France, on November 4. A Native American from Oklahoma, Hightower was known for her virtuosity and flair as a member of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theatre (then known as Ballet Theatre) and Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Hightower also performed with the Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo, becoming the first American to be a leading ballerina in Europe. After retiring from the stage, she created the famed ballet school Centre de Danse Classique in France and directed the Marseilles Ballet, the ballet of the Grand Théâtre of Nancy and La Scala Ballet.

Clive Barnes, 81, passed away on November 19. Barnes was an influential dance and theater critic for The New York Times, The New York Post, The Times of London and Dance Magazine. —MQ

 

 


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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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