Anderson leads company class onstage. Photo by Ulrich Beuttenmueller, Courtesy Stuttgart Ballet.

A Perfect Paradox: At Stuttgart Ballet, Reid Anderson Embraces the Traditional and the Avant-Garde

Name the most prominent choreographers and directors in continental Europe, and the list reads like a who's who of Stuttgart Ballet alumni. John Neumeier, Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe all came up through the ranks of the German company. Four decades after the death of its founder, choreographer John Cranko, Stuttgart Ballet remains a trendsetter under artistic director Reid Anderson, himself a product of the Stuttgart company.

Anderson has mastered an impressive balancing act. Extremes live in peaceful coexistence under the company's repertory system: On alternate nights, dancers might go from the period costumes of Cranko's Onegin or The Taming of the Shrew to the sleek leotards associated with its contemporary in-house creations. As many as five or six premieres make their way to the stage each season. Creativity is also encouraged through the Noverre-Society, an organization created in 1958 that supports new works.


Born in Canada, Anderson won a scholarship at age 17, in 1967, to finish his training at The Royal Ballet School. The day before he was due to fly to London, he happened upon a TV broadcast of Cranko's Romeo and Juliet. It was love at first sight. The production would haunt him through his year at the RBS, and afterward, when he found himself languishing in the ranks of The Royal Opera Ballet, then a sister ensemble to The Royal Ballet. When Anderson learned that Cranko was looking for male dancers for a tour to New York's Metropolitan Opera House, his parents wired him the money to fly to the audition. Anderson was admitted to the company, which was just gathering steam.

Anderson teaching class. Photo by Ulrich Beuttemueller, Courtesy Stuttgart Ballet.

In 1961, Cranko, bolstered by successful creations in London, had taken over the relatively unknown ballet ensemble of the Württemberg State Theatre, as the Stuttgart State Theater was then called. In the ensuing decade, he created some of his best-known works, and the inaugural Met tour Anderson joined in 1969 catapulted the company from unknown entity to overnight sensation. The critics hailed the “Stuttgart Ballet Miracle," and the name stuck. Anderson thrived under Cranko, dancing roles big and small. “I started to do things right away, and I learnt by doing," Anderson says. “John was the most open person; his office was the canteen."

Four years later, however, Cranko's death left his dancers bereft. Anderson remembers: “He was everything to us, and it was an emotional wrench. I couldn't even mention his name for 10 years."

Anderson stayed on as a principal until 1986, gradually taking on teaching and coaching duties. But with his retirement came a desire to strike out from the comfort of Stuttgart. “I could have just become a ballet master, but I thought: There might be more to life than this. I was 35, young enough to learn new things. Becoming a director had always been in the back of my mind."

And a directorship fell into his lap: A young Canadian company, Ballet BC, asked him to take over. As director, he brought in Kylián and Forsythe works and expanded the company from 12 to 18 dancers. The success didn't escape the National Ballet of Canada, which asked Anderson to become its director in 1989. But a seven-year tenure there left Anderson weary of fundraising. “I spent all my time raising money," he says. An abrupt 25 percent cut in the city's funding in 1995 was the last straw.

Anderson with Friedemann Vogel after a stage rehearsal of Maurice Béjart's "Bolero." Photo by Bernd Weissbrod, Courtesy Stuttgart Ballet.

The Stuttgart Ballet was looking for a new director at the time, and Anderson, feeling the pull of the company's state-funded model, flew back to Germany for an interview. The next day, the job was his, but it came with a stringent responsibility: to fire 25 dancers. The company had become calcified at the top, with a mostly unfireable workforce. “In the German system, a new director is allowed to let people go," Anderson explains. “It was firing people I grew up with, and it was seven months from hell, but it was worth it: When I started in the fall of 1996, I had 21 new dancers"—all his own hires.

Anderson set out to rebuild Stuttgart Ballet from the bottom up, in close collaboration with the John Cranko School, founded in 1971. Two-thirds of current company members completed their training there. Nearly all the principals have risen through the ranks, and the unusually tall men nurtured by Anderson, from Friedemann Vogel to Evan McKie, have won particular acclaim for their strength and charisma. “I love building up dancers, and the word is out: If you're good enough, you could be a principal dancer by age 22," Anderson says.

In Stuttgart, Anderson also found the secure funding Canada lacked. Stuttgart Ballet is one the few companies to have weathered the recession unscathed; there is generous public funding for the state theater system, and Porsche is a major sponsor.

Cranko's legacy remains a touchstone for the company. At least one or two of his ballets return every season. Concerted efforts have also been made to preserve his repertoire by allowing other companies to perform it: “We wanted to make sure that the ballets would live on," says Anderson. He and his team stage Cranko works around the world.

Stuttgart Ballet also performs a mix of 19th-century classics and 20th-century works by the likes of Neumeier, Kenneth MacMillan or Hans van Manen. Premieres define each season, however, and the Stuttgart's own school of choreography has developed a recognizable look. New works are typically minimalistic, danced in the barest of costumes, the focus on boundary-pushing articulation and sleek partnering. “On tour in London, a critic mentioned that the dancers had practically nothing on, but it's just so normal for us," Anderson explains. “When we do workshops, I tell young choreographers: I want to see steps, creativity, and I would like to see bodies. Dancers have them, so why not?"

Stuttgart's knowledgeable audience has embraced this ambitious diet, performed throughout the company's year-round season. Attendance at its 1,400-seat Opera House and 800-seat Schauspielhaus was at 99.66 percent last season. “The audience loves the mix," Anderson says. “We can do three new ballets by three young choreographers and sell out."

Stuttgart Ballet at a Glance

  • Size: 63 dancers
  • Starting salary: Company does not release information.
  • Length of contract: Year-round (including yearly bonus and health insurance)
  • Performances: 103 to 110 at home and on tour
  • Website: stuttgart-ballet.de

Audition Advice

Stuttgart Ballet rarely holds open auditions. "I prefer to have dancers come to Stuttgart and do class with the company, to see if they fit in," Anderson says. "I'm a legs-and-feet person, and one thing I always look for is whether the person is truly dancing or not. You should be dancing already at the barre."

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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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