The Royal Ballet's Alexander Campbell and Yasmine Naghdi in Ashton's The Two Pigeons. Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.

How The Royal Ballet Trains Live Pigeons to Join the Cast of Ashton's Masterpiece

While most ballet casts are 100 percent human, it's not unheard of for live animals to appear onstage, providing everything from stage dressing to supporting roles. Michael Messerer's production of Don Quixote features a horse and a donkey; American Ballet Theatre's Giselle calls for two Russian wolfhounds; and Sir Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee requires a white Shetland pony. Another Ashton masterpiece, The Two Pigeons, is well known for its animal actors. But though ballet is a highly disciplined, carefully choreographed art form, some performers are naturally more prone to flights of fancy—because they're birds.


The Royal Ballet with La Fille Mal Gardee's furriest cast member

Helen Maybanks, Courtesy ROH

On opening night of The Royal Ballet's run of The Two Pigeons earlier this year, one of the pigeons made a beeline for the orchestra pit. The female pigeon, whose name is Mole, was supposed to land on soloist Reece Clarke's hand after his adagio solo and stay there until he left the stage. Clarke, in the lead role of the Young Man, said he wasn't sure if his grip was too tight, if the bird became nervous, or if the ropes he wore around his hands and waist during the scene scared the bird off. "I just had a brief moment of panic, and then it was almost like a nice moment," says Clarke. "Like I was setting the pigeon free. And I just had to pretend like that was supposed to happen." Two trainers had to go to the orchestra pit while the orchestra was still playing to retrieve her. "They said the pigeon was sitting at the conductor's podium," says Clarke.

The eponymous pigeons in Sir Frederick Ashton's work represent the relationship between the Young Man and the Young Girl. The Young Man becomes bored of his lover, the Young Girl, and abandons her for a gypsy woman. He is, in turn, spurned by the gypsy woman, kicked out of her camp, and returns, contrite, to his girlfriend. Similarly, the pigeons first appear as a pair, become separated and are then reunited onstage at the end of the show.

The key to working with live animals is to spend time with them beforehand and build a rapport, explains Emma Hills of the UK-based company Amazing Animals, which trains and supplies animals for the media. Hills, who is in charge of birds and small mammals, has been the Royal Ballet's go-to pigeon trainer for about 13 years. The pigeons she currently uses have done the show for nearly 10 years.

Clarke spent two rehearsals getting to know his pigeon partners before the latest production opened. "When I was first introduced to the pigeons, I'm not going to lie, I was pretty nervous," he says. However, Clark explains that he felt much more confident after practicing with the pigeons, even though one went to the toilet on his shoulder and kept squirming from shoulder to shoulder. Hence Hill's other piece of advice: Stay calm if things don't go according to plan. Give the pigeons a chance to adjust and correct themselves.

According to scientific research, pigeons are pretty smart animals. Studies suggest that pigeons factor probability into their decision making process, can be trained to recognize certain words, and have self-cognitive abilities beyond that of three-year-old children.

Hills' feathered performers, white Fantail Pigeons, were chosen as chicks and raised by humans to perform certain natural and reinforced behaviors. When two pigeons fly in sync across the backdrop of the stage, Hills is tapping into their innate flocking tendencies, since there's a third bird just offstage that the two pigeons fly to, which Hills refers to as "the decoy." She keeps five pigeons on hand during performances, including two "hero pigeons" that do most of the heavy-lifting on any given night. Once the ballet starts, the pigeons are kept in a cordoned off area backstage with their own private light, to keep them from falling asleep in the dark.

The Royal Ballet's Alexander Campbell in The Two Pigeons

Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH


Mole, the hero pigeon tasked with landing on the Young Man's hand after being released from about two meters offstage, has been trained to associate outstretched hands with the possibility of "high-value food rewards." "Hemp is a bit like pigeon chocolate," says Hills. "As long as being held and caught by a stranger is not fearful, as long as they can gamble to get high-value food, they maintain the behavior." Hills likes to have whoever is on as the Young Man rehearse this part backstage during intermission with some fresh hemp.

Even more tricky is the final scene, where a pigeon stays put on the Young Man's shoulder while he descends a flight of stairs, before transferring it off his shoulder to a perch on an ornate wicker chair, where it must stay while the two leads dance a seven-minute pas de deux. To accomplish this scene, Hills deploys a second hero pigeon, usually a male named Bianca. Bianca has only flown recreationally in the aviary, but never in training. "He's been highly trained for sitting and waiting," says

After the pas de deux, Bianca serves as the decoy for Mole to fly to. Despite Mole's earlier misadventure into the orchestra pit, Clarke says that she did her last flying pass beautifully. "She made up for it," he adds.

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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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