Paris Opéra Ballet corps members Marion Gautier de Chernacé and Antonin Monié in Tess Voelker's Clouds Inside

Julien Benhamou, Courtesy POB

Tess Voelker Is Only 23, but She’s About to Premiere Her First Work for the Paris Opéra Ballet

Not many 23-year-olds get commissioned by the Paris Opéra Ballet. For Tess Voelker, who grew up between Chicago and New Jersey before moving to Europe to start her dance career, 2020 has turned into an unexpectedly charmed year: In addition to getting a contract as a dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater, she created a pas de deux, Clouds Inside, for POB corps members Marion Gautier de Charnacé and Antonin Monié, as part of a contemporary-choreographers' evening.

While a second national lockdown in France means the November performances have been canceled, Clouds Inside will still get an audience. On November 13, the Paris Opéra Ballet will stream a closed performance of Voelker's work, along with creations by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Mehdi Kerkouche, on Facebook Live at 8 pm Paris time for €4,49. (Tickets are not available in the U.S.)

Pointe recently spoke with Voelker to learn more about how she landed this remarkable opportunity.

How did this collaboration with POB come about?

It all started with the social media world during quarantine. I rented a yoga studio down the street and I kept publishing lots of improv videos on Instagram. And one day, a dancer said he'd found my account thanks to Aurélie Dupont [Paris Opera Ballet's artistic director]. I sent her a message to say it was an honor. She asked me if I ever choreographed, and I said no.

Then a few months later, I get a call from her. Due to coronavirus reasons, they were having a smaller show and she thought to use this time to reach out to more risky artists. I certainly am a risk, and I'm a cheap risk, too [laughs].

Is it really your first choreographic work?

Yes and no. I made a piece my senior year of high school for students, and NDT offers a choreographic workshop every year, so I took part in 2018. But, of course, that's an interesting question because I improv a lot—that's my true passion. Originally improv and choreography were opposite in my eyes, but the more I study it, the more I understand the relationship between composition and improvisation. It wasn't until this past year that I started to know, at some point, I really want to be a choreographer.

Did you grow up wanting to join a ballet company?

My heart was always for NDT. I did competition dance before training at The Rock School, and when I went there, I was always the contemporary one, the one that didn't really fit in. And at the competition school, I was the ballet one. But when one of my good friends in high school showed me Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort, I felt like it was my two worlds colliding.

You spent a season with Ballet Dortmund and three years with NDT 2 before being offered a contract with the main company this year. How has that felt?

There isn't that competitiveness that is inevitable in NDT 2, because everyone wants to prove themselves. They work you all the time; you don't have time for a social life. It's great—it's just very intense. It's almost like they're trying to prepare you for NDT 1, because there is so much trust there. Everyone is their own artist and person.

A male dancer sits on the floor and faces the back of the stage and grasps a female dancer's right leg in a low arabesque with his left arm. He wears a gray shirt and pants while she wears a light pink button-down dress and face mask.

Gautier de Charnacé and Monié in Voelker's Clouds Inside

Julien Benhamou, Courtesy POB

Why did rehearsals for Clouds Inside take place in The Hague?

Since it's my first year with NDT 1, the company didn't want me to miss out. However, they did see the opportunity for what it was, so we came to an agreement that Aurélie would send two of her dancers over here for two weeks. I worked for NDT during the day, and then I went to a separate studio space to choreograph in the evenings.

How did you feel with the Paris Opéra's dancers in the studio?

It's been so fun. The psychological process of choreographing is fascinating to me. I started by improv-ing with them, just seeing how they like to move, and I was blown away: They're beautiful dancers. Then once I tried to put my movement on them, it was hard for me to find that common ground. As the process went on, we got to know each other on a more personal level. That opens conversations, which then opens a certain way of interpreting movement. It left me curious to see what more can come if even more time is dedicated to the process.

You're working with two versions of the same song: Nick Drake's original "Cello Song," from 1969, and a 2009 rendition by The Books and José González.

I thought that was poetically in tune with what any choreographer is doing: We're making our own work of art within an existing work of art, the music. The whole meaning of the piece is inspired by Nick Drake's lyrics. He speaks to himself almost as a naive boy, who is initially playful but gets caught up in his own thoughts. We can be our worst enemy, put that stress and that sadness on ourselves.

I found Marion [Gautier de Charnacé] was the character going through that process. She starts with this childlike naivety, and towards the middle, she gets fuzzy in her mind, lost. All the while, Antonin [Monié] keeps that tempo that is always there. So he can represent, in my eyes, the idea of trust or a parent figure or friend figure—that thing that if you let go, you can always latch on to, and you'll be okay.

Has the process made you look differently on the creations that you've been a part of as a performer?

As a dancer, you inevitably have this realization that although you are your own artist, you still are a tool for the choreographer, and, of course, you want to be their favorite tool. There's this need to be liked. And as a choreographer, it's not about whether you like something or not—it's about the piece. With the man's character, I felt bad at one point because I felt like the material I was giving him wasn't enough for him to really love. But I realized that was what the piece needed, and it has nothing to do with the dancers' ability.

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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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