Dancers in Brendan Fernandes' exhibit "The Master And Form," shown here at the Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo by Brendan Leo Merea, courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This Whitney Biennial Exhibit Spotlights the Labor, Mastery and Discipline of Ballet Dancers

It sounds like a ballet dancer's worst nightmare: hold extensions and splits for a prolonged period, improvise in a cage and on a rope, and execute a ballet barre to performance standards. Do it with no music, wearing just a leotard and tights for an audience that's only two feet away, staring at every move.

Scary as that may sound, that's what the dancers in "The Master And Form" are doing in nine shows a week through September 22 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The exhibit, by Chicago-based artist Brendan Fernandes, is part of the Whitney Biennial 2019, which showcases the "latest developments" in American art.

"When dancers are performing, the feats look effortless," says Fernandes. "But it's labor, and dancers are masochists. I wanted to show the pain and the pleasure."


Fernandes installed five sculptures along with a central cage and hanging ropes in the museum gallery, where a rotating cast of five dancers perform three one-hour shows, Friday through Sunday. When the dancers aren't there, an audio recording of them plays, including their breath and the sound of their pointe shoes.

The dancers enter the gallery walking with pointed feet and turned out heels in a single line, snapping in time with their steps. They station themselves at one of the five structures, where they improvise and hold poses that interact with or mimic the sculpture, including full splits and a 180-degree penchée.

The show flow is in 10-minute cycles, including two cycles at the sculptures, two improvising in and around the central cage structure, one performing a ballet barre and one improvising with hanging ropes. A timekeeper snaps to signal when 10 minutes are up, and the dancers move within the space to the next station with ballet walks and snaps, until they finally exit the same way.

Dancers perform barre exercises during "The Master And Form" at the Whitney Biennial.

Avichai Scher

Fernandes gave the cast instructions on what their improv should include, but he also lets them make choices about what feels good for their bodies in the moment. "I give freedom and agency to the dancers, but it's hard for them to take it," Fernandes says. "I tell them to stop or take a break and they won't."

He made the work ethic and drive of ballet dancers part of the exhibit. By giving them the freedom not push themselves too hard, but knowing that they will, Fernandes shows ballet's gritty side, which he sees as masochism. The exhibit's notes pasted on the gallery wall liken it to S&M culture. "The space is like a BDSM playground," says Fernandes. "There's always questions of power and authority, dominance and subordination in ballet."

Fernandes was born in Kenya and raised in Toronto, where he studied dance as a child and in college but did not dance professionally—he says it's because he didn't have the supple arches needed for ballet. But he has remained connected to dance through his art, including his 2014 work Standing Leg. In that piece, he performed with a foot stretcher to show the length of pain dancers will go to for perfection, and his own struggle with wanting better feet for ballet.

At a recent performance of "The Master And Form," the dancers' sweat and labor was in full view, but they appeared to have accepted Fernandes' permission to take care of themselves. The cast at this performance featured two women: one, Allison Walsh, wore pointe shoes and the other, Violetta Komyshan, wore slippers. Since each cast performs three shows per day, the women usually take turns wearing pointe shoes. ("I love him for giving us the choice," says Walsh.)

The dancers interspersed simple poses, such as the classic B-plus, with more strenuous ones. At times, they laid on their back with legs in the air and shook the cramps out of their feet.

Walsh, who danced with The Joffrey Ballet for seven years and on Broadway in An American in Paris and Anastasia, describes this performance experience as meditative. "When you're in the corps holding poses, you want to move but you can't," she says. "Here, if you're uncomfortable, you can step out. It's freeing."

One of the hardest aspects of the performance for Walsh is how close the audience is. They aren't shy to walk up to the dancers and take pictures or film. "It's kind of an invasion of privacy, they're so close to us," she says. "But you can tell people really appreciate the immersive experience we're giving them."

That was the case for Virginia Jeffries, a spectator visiting the museum. "When you go see dance, you can't get close to the dancers like this," she says. "It's neat."

Dancer Allison Walsh stretches out on the floor as onlookers watch.

Avichai Scher.

When the dancers first entered the space, the exhibit room was filled with people waiting to see what they'd do. But as the hour-long performance went on, the crowd thinned to a few people. Without music or much movement, it's hard to watch dancers push their bodies so hard. The work and sacrifice of ballet can't be fully appreciated in just an hour, even if watching a performance of Swan Lake from the wings or observing the physical therapy room backstage. The only "outsiders" who really understand the struggle dancers go through are likely their family members, who watch students give nearly all their free time to classes and bring them an ice pack at the end of the day.

But "The Master And Form" works as a way for the general public to understand the pain and beauty of achieving an "effortless" ballet performance. With the dancers used as an exhibit more than performers, it breaks the illusion of perfection that they work so hard to achieve.

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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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