Nashville Ballet's Julia Eisen and Jon Upleger in A Streetcar Named Desire. MA2LA, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Feminist Reading of "A Streetcar Named Desire" Comes to Nashville

In December 1947, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire rocked audiences with its brutal portrayal of a young southern widow's tragic life. At the Broadway premiere, the theater fell utterly silent after the curtain closed, before the audience erupted into a 30-minute ovation.

Since its creation, Streetcar has won numerous awards and provided inspiration for a plethora of adaptations. Now, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's balletic version is making its U.S. company debut at Nashville Ballet November 1–3. As a female choreographer with an interest in telling women's stories, Ochoa is championing a new era of narrative ballet, and she wants audiences familiar with Williams' story to see the protagonist's arc in a new light.


Streetcar was Ochoa's first full-length work; it premiered at Scottish Ballet in 2012. "I chose this story and I couldn't understand why no other company had chosen it, but as I was making the piece I understood," she explains. "The characters are complex and very layered, and the story leans on secrecy and psychology."

Ochoa's version retains the play's major plot points: The audiences witnesses Blanche DuBois's life unfold, and see the brutal abuse she suffers at the hands of people she depends on. But Ochoa worked with theater director Nancy Meckler to restructure the complex narrative for ballet. "Flashback is very hard to convey in dance. There's no past tense in movements, no words, so I thought the best way would be to tell the story as chronologically as possible," says Ochoa.

Julia Eisen in rehearsal

Lydia McRae, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

Throughout her choreographic process, Ochoa sought to challenge her own initial reading of Williams's play. "My first impression was, well, [DuBois] deserves it," she says. "She's a nymphomaniac, she lies, she drinks; of course she's going to get into trouble." But by devoting more time to DuBois' backstory, Ochoa is asking the audience to understand the character within her historical context. She and Meckler want the viewer to empathize with DuBois, and see her as a woman surviving trauma, not as a slattern to be scorned.

Costumes and sets by Niki Turner and lighting design by Tim Mitchell bring this post-war New Orleans world to life, but the production relies most heavily on the acting chops of its lead performers. Nashville Ballet dancer Julia Eisen will play DuBois on opening night. In addition to reading the play ("three to four times") and watching the original movie ("more times than I can count"), she and the other leads have been coached by Meckler. Eisen finds DuBois' character devastating to embody. "She's gone through the worst case scenarios you can go through as a woman," she says. "It brings up a lot of dark emotions, but I think it's so important to tell this story."

Even 72 years after the play's debut, Streetcar's themes still resonate: physical and sexual abuse, perceptions of homosexuality, alcohol addiction, the struggles immigrants face and mental illness. When it comes to the last, Ochoa pulled from very personal experience. Fifteen years ago, her mother suffered a mental episode and was interned in a psychiatric institution. Ochoa has the distinct memory of looking at her mother in a garden behind metal bars. While she remembers feeling sad, she says that her mother was "the happiest I had ever seen her in my life, because she was completely delusional." Ochoa tapped into the dichotomy of these emotions for DuBois' final scene. "I wanted that ending, for the audience to feel sad, looking at someone completely crazy and happy," she explains.

For Ochoa, Streetcar is just the beginning of what full-length story ballets can be in our modern age. "As a female choreographer, there are only a few of us that are given a platform to do big ballets," she says. "We try new ways of telling stories, because we want to portray the woman differently—not always elegant, always in pointe shoes, always pretty. For me it's a very personal piece, because it's my way of showing that we can move on with the narrative."

Nasvhille Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Polk Theater November 1–3.

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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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