Tough Tryout

For a performing artist, every moment onstage is a test, but once a year the Paris Opera Ballet takes the idea of assessment to the extreme. Originally designed as an obligatory annual exam, the Concours (literally “contest” in English) has since evolved into a voluntary, if highly encouraged, event. Since 1860, the dancers of the POB have submitted to this internal competition as the only route to promotion within the ranks of the company’s military-like hierarchy. Dancers enter the company as quadrilles, then, after successive Concours, move up to be coryphées, sujets and premier danseurs. Only the company’s stars étoiles—can be promoted at any point throughout the year.

“This is what they work toward,” says Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s artistic director. “The dancers truly believe that the Concours is essential for them—essential to the ballet and essential to the level of excellence they strive toward.”

Over a two-day period in December, the company’s main theater, the ornate and beautiful Palais Garnier, closes its doors to the public. Only select family members, fellow dancers and specially invited guests can observe from the rear seats as a 10-member jury votes on the year’s contestants.

One by one, on a bare stage and under glaring white lights, the dancers demonstrate their skills to the panel of judges comprised of a jury of their peers (elected by the dancers themselves), Lefèvre and Paris Opera General Director Gérard Mortier. The company customarily invites two guests; in 2007 they were Zhao Ruheng, artistic director of the National Ballet of China, and New York City Ballet principal Nikolaj Hübbe, who retires this year to become the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet.

“I don’t prepare the judges for the competition,” says Lefèvre. “They have all been through events like this in their careers; they know what to look for. But it is true that we have differences of opinion and sometimes go through four to five rounds of votes before coming to a decision. It is a dynamic and very exciting moment.” In previous years, the results were publicly announced shortly after the Concours, but given the passionate objections that often arose, the results have since been relegated to a backstage posting and an e-mail.

The judging follows a point system; the higher the score, the more likely the promotion. Each dancer can receive a total of 30 points, 20 of which reflect his or her performance that day. The remaining 10 points are based on the year’s work. A fantastic performance at the Concours cannot make up for a lack of diligence throughout the year, though some consolation can be found from the satisfaction of being noticed, if not promoted.

In the 2007 Concours, 40 women and 34 men competed for 19 available slots, including a rare two openings for both female and male premier danseurs. Throughout the competition, the pressure is intense. “You may make a mistake during a show,” says Stéphane Bullion, a candidate for premier danseur, “but this is one performance when you just can’t.”

Clapping is forbidden, and the silence in the theater can be deafening. The contestants perform one required variation and one of their choice, each selected from the company’s repertoire. Any error is magnified. “The slightest nervous twitch can be detected by the judges,” says Eve Grinsztajn, also a candidate for premier danseur. “It is like performing under a magnifying glass.”

On the first morning of the Concours, the quadrilles open the competition at 9:30 a.m. Awake at 4, in class at 6 and in full costume by 8, the quadrilles may have the most demanding test. “The final rehearsal is surreal,” says Grinsztajn. “We are
all dressed alike, glittering together in the wee hours of the morning. Some of us laugh and joke until the last minute, while others wear headphones or isolate themselves in silence.”

Scheduled last of nine competing sujets, Grinsztajn had 55 minutes to wait backstage before her performance of the required variation, an excerpt from Act II of Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadère. “I had to listen to the same song consecutively eight times. It was nerve-racking,” she says. “I kept changing my shoes, joking with the security guards, anything to stay calm and focused. It was down, up, down, up. But the minute I put my foot onstage, everything felt just right.”

In a sense, each dancer’s future is on the line. “When you are standing backstage and you hear your name called, I’m not sure if a parachute jump wouldn’t be easier!” says Lefèvre, who readily admits that as a former POB dancer, the annual exam was dreadful even for her. “I was a terrible participant. It wasn’t until my last competition that I was finally able to free myself of
the terror.”

Grinsztajn won her promotion, as did Bullion. “I never gave up,” he says. His interpretation of an excerpt from Roland Petit’s The Phantom of the Opera convinced the jury to promote him to premier danseur. “Before, when I wasn’t selected, I had an even greater desire to succeed. It pushes us further.” This was his eighth Concours. One surprising victory this year went to Ghyslaine Reichert, who, at 35, was finally awarded her first promotion. She advanced from quadrille to coryphée after this, her 19th year with the company.

“I admit I voted for her this year,” says Lefèvre. “Even if she hasn’t got the complete battery of skills required to move on further, her energy, her determination and her enthusiasm, especially in her interpretation of Mats Ek’s Giselle, just swept us away.”

Lefèvre is proud of the Concours. It is an event the dancers both fear and anticipate. A unique opportunity to be in the spotlight, it offers the chance to ascend through the hierarchy of this very traditional company. It’s not a flawless system: While dancers with incredible personalities may get overlooked for purely technical reasons, others who may shine throughout the regular season in contemporary works end up sidelined by the rigorousness of the competition.

“It does make me wonder if we aren’t a bit too academic,” says Lefèvre.  “But it is the basis of our company. And nothing can better prepare a dancer for life after the stage than the Concours. During my most trying moments, I ask myself if it is any harder than climbing onto that stage for the Concours, and invariably my answer is no. I have tremendous respect for dancers who manage to pick themselves up from defeat and continue.”

A freelance writer based in Paris, Karyn Bauer-Prévost has been covering dance in France for more than a decade.

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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.

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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.

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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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