Gen Horiuchi with dancers Lauren Lane and Elliott Geolat. Photo by Sabrine Rhodes, Courtesy Saint Louis Ballet.

Saint Louis Ballet's Gen Horiuchi is the Do-It-All Director

When Gen Horiuchi became the executive and artistic director of Saint Louis Ballet, his mentor Peter Martins offered the same wisdom that George Balanchine had given him: Running a company isn't just about ballet—you have to do and oversee everything. That leadership philosophy is what Horiuchi, now 53, has adopted at Saint Louis Ballet.

The Tokyo native and former New York City Ballet principal took over the financially troubled company from longtime artistic directors Ludmila Dokoudovsky and Antoni Zalewski in 2000. Within two years Horiuchi stabilized the organization's finances and restructured and revitalized the Saint Louis Ballet School. In 2010, he moved the organization into a new 7,500-square-foot facility with four studios.

Now in his 18th season with SLB, Horiuchi has increased the company's annual operating budget from $200,000 in 2000 to $2 million currently, grown the number of dancers from 13 to 25, and added more productions (when he arrived they were only perform- ing Nutcracker). He's also increased ticket sales and bolstered the school's enrollment from 50 to 350 students.


A former Mistoffelees in CATS on Broadway and London's West End, Horiuchi says his experiences in musical theater have taught him that you don't need a large cast to produce quality full-length productions like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. "Even though we only have 25 dancers we can produce good story ballets," he says. SLB's repertoire also includes well-known works by Balanchine and contemporary works by dancemakers such as Amy Seiwert, Emery LeCrone, Francis Patrelle, Tom Gold and himself.

Gen Horiuchi with Saint Louis Ballet in his piece "Passage." Photo by Pratt Kreidich.

"I do like the athleticism of dance movement," says Horiuchi. In choosing choreographers to create on the company, he says he looksfor that athleticism à la Balanchine in their prior work and decides whether or not he feels they can create something that will challenge his dancers.

On top of his artistic and administrative duties, Horiuchi choreographs a couple of ballets per season. Elliott Geolat, a 32-year-old Saint Louis native who's SLB's longest-tenured dancer, says Horiuchi favors a neoclassical, sometimes jazzy style in his original works. In Horiuchi's restaging of classical story ballets, such as Cinderella, Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet, Geolat says he has the keen ability to clarify a ballet's storyline and make it accessible to a broader audience.

When it comes to working with his dancers, Horiuchi says he finds leading by example to be most effective. "I'm in the studio every minute of every day," he says. While he oversees all aspects of SLB, his artistic and administrative staffs help make this possible. And when he is not teaching company class, he takes it with the dancers.

Geolat describes Horiuchi's leadership style as firm but approachable. "He sets an example for us by taking his work very seriously," says Geolat. "He tries to maintain the highest standards and is good about motivating the dancers and keeping them from plateauing."

Horiuchi even shares the stage with his company when he choreographs new contemporary works. Though unorthodox, Horiuchi has his reasons for these annual cameos. "It's important for me to dance with them. Of course I cannot jump and turn as I used to, but I know how to present myself onstage, and sharing those [teachable] moments with the dancers connects with them more than me just telling them what to do."

In an effort to take some of the pressure off dancers when it comes to planning their careers, Horiuchi says it is widely under- stood that their contracts will be renewed each season. Barring any dismissible offenses, his dancers can choose to stay as long as they wish instead of annually worrying about their job security. As such, the non-ranked company has a low turnover rate, with dancers stay- ing on average six-plus years.

Gen Horiuchi with Saint Louis Ballet in his piece "Passage." Photo by Pratt Kreidich.

In the short term, Horiuchi would like to expand the company's main-stage productions to two weekends each instead of one. SLB's 2017–18 season features six programs, including two additions: Its new GO! Series will feature works created for smaller casts in more intimate venues. Horiuchi's long-term goals include increasing the dancer ranks to 30–32 and paying his artists more.

Though some might see his do-it-all philosophy as untenable, Horiuchi welcomes the challenge. "It's hard and I sleep less, but I enjoy every minute of it."

Audition Advice

"The minute you walk into the studio you are being evaluated," says Horiuchi. "I look for individuals who are technically and artistically well-rounded. I also look at how they engage with my dancers. Presence and personality are important." Annual auditions take place during company classes by invitation only February 28–April 1, with a March 10 application deadline. Horiuchi and his artistic team conduct personal interviews and assess dancers in specific areas, such as footwork, jumping, turning and musicality.

Saint Louis Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 25

Length of contract: 28 weeks

Starting salary: $300 per week

Performances per year: 25

Website: stlouisballet.org

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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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