An SAB advanced student performs in a scene from Disney+'s "On Pointe"

Courtesy DCTV

School of American Ballet Docuseries “On Pointe” Is Streaming on Disney+ on December 18

Looking for some extra merriment this holiday season? Disney+ is gifting ballet fans with an inside look at the School of American Ballet with its new show "On Pointe." The six-part docuseries, which began filming in summer 2019 and concluded in early 2020 when the school shut down due to COVID-19, follows a season with SAB students. All six episodes will be released on the subscription-based streaming service on December 18.

Pointe spoke with the show's director and producer, Larissa Bills, about what viewers can expect from the show and how she hopes it will inspire dancers.

What inspired this docuseries, and why did you choose to work with SAB specifically?

My executive producer, Matt O'Neill, had fostered a relationship with the school over several years, hoping to develop a feature documentary or series, but the timing was never quite right. Sometime in late 2018, SAB reached out to us and asked if there was still interest. I had been working with Matt on other projects and we started to develop it together, and eventually Matt handed it off to me to direct. I think SAB liked that we would have a small footprint—we'd be a really small crew that would be able to float in and not disrupt their work.

I learned a lot over the course of filming and editing. It was an amazing opportunity to dive into one of the best ballet schools in the world.

Can you give a brief snapshot of some of the dancers we will see profiled on the show?

We follow two tracks of dancers: several intermediate and advanced students, and kids in the children's division.

The intermediate and advanced dancers are primarily residential students from all over the country, ages 14 to 18, who have been invited to SAB to train for professional careers. For most of them, the dream is to join New York City Ballet. Because the school is affiliated with the company, there is a bit of a path to NYCB, but it's not guaranteed.

The younger kids that we feature are winter-term students from all over New York City, ages 8 to 13, who have the opportunity to be cast in NYCB's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. We follow them through the process of being cast, rehearsing, being fitted for costumes and, eventually, opening night. What's amazing is that while they do 25 shows on the stage at Lincoln Center, they are still going to school and taking ballet class and doing things regular kids do. They are really extraordinary.

Two girl ballet students wearing black camisole leotards and their hair in a bun stand next to each other in a brightly lit dance studio, listening attentively as someone speaks to them off camera. Seven other young girls dancers in leotards and upswept hair stand casually behind them.

SAB children's division students during a casting call for NYCB's The Nutcracker

Courtesy DCTV

Do you have a dance background or are you connected to the ballet world in some way?

I took ballet lessons as a kid. My mother had danced well into her teens and had instilled a real love of the art form in me. I loved seeing ballets and reading about them. My favorite book was A Very Young Dancer, by photojournalist Jill Krementz. It was about a girl who went to SAB and danced Marie in The Nutcracker. As a kid I would pore over that book endlessly. I actually dug it up when I started the series, just to try to enlist some of that wonder into the filmmaking.

What do you think makes this series unique compared to other ballet movies and shows?

SAB gave us unprecedented access, and, of course, we documented the process of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker from casting to performance. Just seeing the "machine" of a big professional production like that was amazing, and I think it will be a unique experience for viewers.

Also, the featured students are really telling their own stories, in their own voices. We were truly a fly on the wall—nothing is manufactured or scripted. Things move quickly at SAB and we couldn't manipulate student schedules or do things over to get a shot, so we had to always be at the right place at the right time. Often that meant we needed to study up on our dance and understand how certain classes were taught and even anticipate how variations were going to move so we could capture the choreography on camera.

The dance industry has been really affected by the current pandemic. How do you hope this show will inspire dancers during this challenging time?

Oh, I definitely hope the series will inspire ballet students right now. I know for me personally, just being able to see footage every day of SAB students together in classes, in rehearsals and onstage took on so much more meaning for me once the pandemic hit. It also gave me a lot of hope to know that these students—even the youngest ones—are still doing their tendus, whether it's at a kitchen counter or a barre in their basement or at their hometown studio. To me, dance really lives in the moment it is performed. Even if we don't have live performances (or class or rehearsal), we do have the next best thing, and that is the recorded performance (or class or rehearsal). And it's my hope that audiences will find a bit of joy over the course of the series through those moments we've captured.

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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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