The NYCB Spring Gala: Modern Stories

The New York City Ballet spent its winter season tackling Big Story Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, A Midsummer Night's Dream. So when I entered the David H. Koch theater last night (right before Sarah Jessica Parker, no less!) for the company's spring gala, I was anticipating--OK, eagerly anticipating--a return to balletic abstraction, to sleek unitards and challenging music and movement for movement's sake. I love the sweep and drama and romance of the full-length classics  dearly, but watching a season full of those ballets, especially from a company known for its austerity, felt like eating too much sugary cake. I wanted a palate-cleansing program.

And I got one. But in came, suprisingly, in the form of two more stories--relatively abstract stories, to be sure, but stories nonetheless.

First up was Benjamin Millepied's premiere, Why am I not where you are, set to a comissioned score by Milepied's fellow Frenchman Thierry Escaich. The plot centers on a boy (Sean Suozzi, vibrantly athletic) initially dressed all in white. He's preoccupied with a girl (Kathryn Morgan, quietly tragic, substituting for the injured Janie Taylor) who belongs to a community of people dressed in vivid colors. The girl can't see him, however, until he dons a colorful vest. (The couple's brief pas de deux when she is still blind to him, yet somehow aware of his presence, is one of the most memorable moments in the ballet. It evoked La Sonnambula, but had an additional urgency: She fully awake, not sleepwalking, and is actively, frantically searching for him.) Yet the vest is not enough for the two sinister leaders of the Color Clan (Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar), who seduce Suozzi into adding more and more colorful layers. Finally, when the boy's transformation is complete, the Clan tears the colors from his beloved girl's clothing, making her invisible to the now-colorful boy--an inversion of the opening.

Was it a successful piece? Not really. The best part, actually, was architect Santiago Calatrava's fantastic set: a huge, spoked sunburst of an arch that rippled and waved and glowed in Mark Stanley's lighting. But while I love the way Millepied works with groups--he has a geometric mind--none of his dance phrases stuck in my brain the way they usually do. I'm interested to see if he continues to pursue the idea of the modern story ballet, but this particular story seemed a bit too literal, too bang-you-over-the-head (beginning with the title). And I'm not a fan of any ballet that involves putting on or taking off costumes onstage; whenever that's happening, all the audience can think about is whether the dancers will be able to yank things into place in time. (I wasn't big on the costumes themselves, either--why did the boys look like court jesters, and the girls, with their multicolored tulle skirts, seem straight out of La Valse?)

Alexei Ratmansky's premiere, Namouna, A Grand Divertissement, on the other hand? Amazing, period. (I almost typed "end of story"--but that would be a bit misleading, no?) The plot, very loosely based on the original libretto for Edouard Lalo's 19th-century score, is going to sound totally ridiculous written out, and frankly looks a bit ridiculous onstage. But I think that's the point. Namouna feels like a ballet in the tradition of Le Corsaire: a comic work energized by the very craziness and implausibilty of its story.

Here's my attempt at plot summary: A young hero (Robert Fairchild, dashing and sweet) is searching for Namouna, who I think in the ballet's original libretto was a slave girl, but in Ratmansky's version seems to be more of a water nymph. There are three women (Jenifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, and Wendy Whelan) who might be Namouna, and the hero's job, in a bizarro Mamma Mia! kind of way, is to determine which one actually is. (Spoiler alert: It's Wendy!) Rounding out the cast are a puckish trio (Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild and Abi Stafford--whom I've never liked more than I did in this piece), eight supporting couples, and a large corps of women.

What did that look like onstage? It looked, by some choreographic miracle, logical. Like Millepied, Ratmansky is also a whiz with large groups, but he tends to use simple canon and gentle repetition rather than the complicated, swirling patterns that characterize Millepied's dances. Ratmansky's clean forms calmed everything down a bit--they gave a visual order to the ballet's chaotic world.

And I love that Ratmansky isn't afraid to be funny. There's a moment in Namouna when Robbie Fairchild dances a solo surrounded by the entire corps of women, who clap together small cymbals and bounce on their heels in time with the music--the overall effect being that it looks like the girls are saying, "Dance, Robbie, dance!" Jenifer Ringer also has a fantastic solo with, of all things, a cigarette. (I found out later that in the original ballet, this part of the score was intended for a dance in which Namouna rolls a cigarette for a lover. I think.) Who knew that Ringer, always so elegant and poised and regal, was such a comedienne? By the end of the solo, Ratmansky has her strutting flat-footed around the stage, waving smoke out of her face. The audience went wild for her.

I left the theater feeling good about the future of the story ballet. And feeling curious, too, about what Ratmansky's ABT Nutcracker will look like. If he's this good at bringing out the comedic sides of professional dancers, just imagine what he'll be able do with children!

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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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