We're doing classical ballet, #SpookyStyles (Getty Images/Ezume Images)

This Halloween, We're Ranking the Spookiest Ballets in Dance History

When people think ballet, they think elegance and grace—pretty tutus and pink shoes. Yet the plots of some of the most famous ballets could rival any Hollywood horror flick. Most ballet companies have their Nutcracker in the wintertime, and a fun story ballet in the spring, but what about #SpookySzn?

We're ranking the *spookiest* ballets on a scale from 1-5 Wilis—aka the beautiful dancing ghosts from Giselle. For the sake of this list, 1 will be "slightly concerning" (think, "forgetting your ballet shoes at home") and 5 will be "abject terror" (as in, "forgetting the choreography for your solo and freezing like a deer in headlights").

Without further ado, let's boo-rrée down the list.


"Giselle"

Let's start with the obvious choice. Giselle is *literally* a ghost story. After the show's leading lady dies of a broken heart/heart defect (still unclear), Giselle returns in Act II as a member of Queen Myrtha's cohort of scorned ghost women, called the Wilis. In fact, some historians believe the phrase "the willies," originates from the Wilis in Giselle. Queen Myrtha and her #GirlSquad of ghosts proceed to haunt Prince Albrecht (Giselle's ex) and attempt to dance him to an early grave. Pretty spooky if you ask us. Add in the misty blue lighting, shadowy trees, and the fact that Act II takes place in a *literal* cemetery and we've got a scary story to tell in the dark.

Also, can we mention how many Wilis there are? That's a lot of women betrayed by their lovers. Maybe the real fright in Giselle is the patriarchy.

Score: 4 out of 5 Wilis.

"Swan Lake"

Despite the Black Swan Hollywood treatment, Swan Lake—the ballet—is more tragedy than thriller. Sure, we have an evil sorcerer and a curse, but that's pretty standard fare for Romantic-era ballets. When Prince Seigfried falls for Rothbart's trick and betrays Odette, it's more sad than terrifying. Swan Lake earns one point for the scream queen herself Odile, and one for the complete downer of an ending.

Score: 2 out of 5 Wilis.

"Coppelia"

We know what you're thinking: "Coppelia, the comedic ballet? What's it doing on this list?" Well, hear us out. Dr. Coppelius builds lifelike dolls and wants to imbue them with life, Dr. Frankenstein-style. He's fully prepared to sacrifice Franz, the leading man, to do so. Um okay, Annabelle. We're pretty sure haunted dolls deserve their own horror category on Netflix.

Swanhilda is basically the final girl of the ballet world, and no, we will not be accepting constructive criticism on this analysis. She stays behind after all her friends are gone to confront Dr. Coppelius and save Franz. We'd put Swanhilda in the same category as Sidney Prescott from Scream and Laurie Strode from Halloween.

However, we must deduct points for Coppelia's happy ending.

Score: 3.5 out of 5 Wilis.

"Sleeping Beauty"

Honestly, Carabosse (Sleeping Beauty's resident evil fairy) is a pretty iconic villain. Her theme music is intense, her sinister pantomime is terrifying, and her rat posse? Powerful. But ultimately, we know the plot of Sleeping Beauty too well to find it frightening. Plus, the entirety of Act III is a party.

Score: 1 out of 5 Wilis.

Matthew Bourne's "Sleeping Beauty"

This version is literally a different story. Would it be fair to call Matthew Bourne the Tim Burton of choreographers? We think he would be okay with that comparison. After all, this is the man who choreographed an Edward Scissorhands ballet.

Bourne takes the classic fairytale and sprinkles in some vampires—this was 2012 after all, AKA peak Twilight era. We also see some creepy Gothic fairies, and a truly disturbing baby Aurora puppet (see above on haunted dolls). Bourne's adaptation leans in heavily to the vampire genre tropes, complete with a love triangle between Aurora's childhood love Leo and Caradoc, son of the evil fairy/vampire Carabosse. We also witness a nightmarish sequence when a faceless Aurora dances with the evil vampires, and...a club scene? Things get weird in Act II.

Score: 4.5 out of 5 Wilis, with .5 added for the baby Aurora puppet.

"La Sylphide"

Speaking of Tim Burton, La Sylphide gives off some classic Tim Burton Corpse Bride vibes. The ballet features a young man who falls in love with an enchanted spirit called a sylph. Right when he's about to marry his (human) fiancée, the sylph puts his wedding ring on her own finger and lures him into the forest. This ballet also features a coven of witches, ghostly apparitions, and a man who's afraid of commitment. Sounds pretty spooky to us.

Score: 4 out of 5 Wilis.

"Rite of Spring"

Don't let Ari Aster see this ballet. Or maybe do, if you're into that kind of thing, because Rite of Spring could be retitled Midsommar: The Ballet. Igor Stravinsky's score is intense enough on its own, but when you add in the primal nature of the choreography and the intensity it builds, the whole thing feels like a pagan sacrifice going off the deep end.

Score: 5 out of 5 Wilis.

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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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