The Power of Youth

"Never underestimate youth,” says Peter Martins, who in his 37 years with New York City Ballet has seen more than a few young dancers achieve early stardom. Martins’s innovative new production of Romeo and Juliet, which premieres on May 1 at the New York State Theater, is a departure both for him as a creative artist and for its casting.

NYCB’s ballet master in chief has looked outside the company’s long roster of dancers for a Juliet glowing with the blush of youth: Instead of a NYCB principal, the role will be danced by a 16-year-old student in the company’s school. 

Impetuous and passionate, the Juliet of Shakespeare’s play is still a young girl. “My child is yet a stranger in the world; She hath not seen the change of 14 years,” says Lord Capulet. Yet when the play is translated to ballet, often the role is the prerogative of a leading dancer who is twice Juliet’s age. “With all respect to the Romeo and Juliets that I have watched in my lifetime,” says Martins, “they all have something to say, but it always bothered me that I saw a grand, great ballerina being praised for being able to portray a 14-year-old. I say, ‘Why not the real thing?’”

Martins found “the real thing” at School of American Ballet, the venerable training facility associated with NYCB. Callie Bachman, an SAB student since 2003, is rehearsing the role of Juliet along with three classmates. Being tapped for such a major role is thrilling and a little terrifying. “In the beginning, rehearsals were nerve-wracking because I had never worked one-on-one with Peter before,” says Bachman. “It was intimidating at first. But he has been great to work with.”

The creative process has involved more give-and-take than young dancers are often accustomed to, with Martins proposing steps and the dancers trying to execute his vision. “We’ve been experimenting a lot and doing new steps that haven’t really been done before,” says Bachman. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s really fun no matter what.” Working with younger dancers has been different for Martins, too. “They are all exceedingly polite and courteous,” says Martins. “And there is a reverence that I am not quite used to. It’s very apropos for the role.”

Bachman’s Romeo is Robby Fairchild, 19, currently in his first year as a corps dancer with NYCB. “The Romeos are a little bit older and there is a practical reason for that,” says Martins. “Romeo has to partner a girl. It is still a ballet. It is difficult to find 16-year-old boys who could handle that. They need to be a little stronger, a little more mature.”

Both dancers stress the importance of conveying the emotional journey of their characters and the depth and desperation of the love between them. Bachman and Fairchild are preparing for their roles by reading the play, listening to the music, watching the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (which features teenaged actors) and studying notes—including an in-depth analysis of the characters and an overview of the story—that Martins has given them. Fairchild’s older sister Megan, a principal with NYCB, gave him his copy of the play and a DVD of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s could be an intimidating interpretation to follow, but Fairchild says he doesn’t plan on comparing himself to anyone else. “The choreography is completely different,” he says. “And I’m focusing on the role itself. I feel a little more comfortable with it being a story ballet, because it’s not me. It’s Romeo. You can hide behind the character a little bit and be him instead of yourself. It’s less scary.”

Martins acknowledges that there are risks involved in resting an ambitious new production on the shoulders of untested dancers. “You can imagine my whole idea of having a 16-year-old student portraying Juliet is nervous-making,” he says. “Because although I know that the people I chose are perfectly capable technically as dancers to do it, I also knew that I wanted this pure innocence to emerge. What I didn’t know, and still to a degree do not know, is whether they will be able to carry the whole show. I would say that I still have faith that I will get what I had hoped for.”

Fairchild, for one, is excited. “I look forward to every single rehearsal,” he says. “If it’s not on the schedule, I get kind of bummed. It’s just so much fun, creating a whole new ballet.”

The casting is not the only innovation in Martins’s production. To create a unique look for the sets and costumes, Martins turned again to Danish painter Per Kirkeby, who also designed the NYCB production of Swan Lake. “He is what you might want to call an abstract painter, although he is able to be very Romantic,” says Martins. “And this is a neo-Romantic rendition of Romeo and Juliet.” Inspired by the multifunctional set piece painter Georges Rouault designed for Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Martins asked Kirkeby to create a set piece that could be transformed before the audience’s eyes. The result is one all-encompassing unit that changes from a building in a Veronese street scene into a bedroom, ballroom, balcony, garden, chapel and ultimately a tomb. “What I didn’t want was black curtains coming down as there was a scenery change in the back. When you hear all the noise, it kills the magic,” says Martins.

The scene changes will take less than a minute, enabling Martins to streamline the Prokofiev score. With the elimination of one of the customary two intermissions, Martins’s Romeo and Juliet has an estimated running time of two hours and 20 minutes, far shorter than the three hours most productions last. “I have tried to be very respectful of Prokofiev’s musical intentions and the integrity of the score,” says Martins. “I have not eliminated any music. I carefully studied the score and came to realize that music written for scenery changes was basically music that you either had already heard or would hear later on.”

The new production is part of the company’s ongoing tribute to Lincoln Kirstein, who cofounded SAB and NYCB with Balanchine. “Lincoln always talked about continuation,” says Martins. “You are a young dancer, you become a principal dancer, you hand over your knowledge to the next generation and life goes on. It’s a cycle. I think this Romeo and Juliet is very much about that.” That thought may have led Martins to cast Jock Soto and Darci Kistler, both teachers at SAB, as Lord and Lady Capulet. “When I asked them if the two of them would consider becoming Lord and Lady Capulet, at first they were somewhat taken aback,” says Martins. “Jock is retired, but Darci is still dancing. But now that we have choreographed a whole section, they are engaged and want to do it very much. And I think that is very much in Lincoln’s spirit.”

The ballet represents a progression for Martins. In his productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, he was careful to pay tribute to the traditions of Balanchine, Petipa and Ivanov. With Romeo and Juliet, he has felt free to do his own thing. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “I love the concept, the music is sublime—perhaps the best thing he ever wrote—and I love my dancers. I am thrilled to be walking into a studio every day. It’s really an up moment for me.”

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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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