Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH.

Charlotte Edmonds, The Royal Ballet's Inaugural Young Choreographer, Gets Ready to Spread Her Wings

Wearing leggings and a puffy vest as she works in one of The Royal Ballet's light-filled studios, Charlotte Edmonds could pass for a corps de ballet member. Instead, she is choreographing on them, creating dynamic, ballet-based contemporary dance in her role as the company's first-ever Young Choreographer.

"At the Opera House you have dancers who have 20 years more experience," she says. "I bow to their experience, but I also try to hold the room. It is sometimes quite nerve-racking! But it is always exciting."

Edmonds' uncanny instincts for choreography and leadership were already apparent at age 11, when she was a first-year student in the Royal Ballet School's Lower School—and a finalist in its competition for the Ninette de Valois Junior Choreographic Award. She got her first professional commission at age 16, and was barely 19 when Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare named her the inaugural recipient of the company's Young Choreographer Programme. The paid position provides her with studio space, access
to dancers and the mentorship of renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor.


Photo by Alice Pennefeather, Courtesy ROH


Now 20, Edmonds is working part-time with The Royal while transitioning into a freelance career. And at an age when most budding dancemakers are just beginning to experiment on their friends, Edmonds is on a first-name basis with some of the most famous people in ballet: Crystal Pite, Liam Scarlett and Christopher Wheeldon.

Edmonds admits that it's all a bit surreal. "In my first company meeting, I had this list of things I really wanted to cover. It said, 'How do I get in touch with Wayne McGregor?' When I was talking, I could see Wayne reading the list. After I'd finished, he'd written his email down and 'That's how.' I thought, 'I can't believe that just happened.' "

"You have to keep on reminding yourself that she's the age she is," says O'Hare. "She is quite phenomenal, the way she behaves, how she organizes herself, how she deals under the pressure."


From Dancer to Dancemaker

Edmonds didn't start out wanting to become a choreographer. She fell in love with ballet at age 4, and auditioned for the RBS's four-year Lower School, at White Lodge, at 10. "When I first came to White Lodge, I really wanted to be a professional dancer," she recalls.

Like many petite dancers, though, the 5-foot Edmonds felt that her size wasn't helping her. "In my last two years, I really wasn't being cast in anything, I think because of my height. So I used that time to experiment. I used to put my music on and dance for hours. From then my interest kind of naturally turned to choreography."

A Valois Award finalist in each of her first three years, she won the RBS's Kenneth MacMillan Senior Choreographic Award in 2011 and 2012. O'Hare was one of the judges. "It was fascinating the way she used classical language, but with something new and original and fresh," he says of those early works.


Edmonds with Royal Ballet dancer Anna Rose O'Sullivan. Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH.

On the day the RBS informed then-16-year-old Edmonds that she was not promoted into the Upper School, "the tissues were already passed towards me, before they'd even said anything," she remembers."But I was fine. Then they said, 'But there was a conversation about you continuing as a choreographer.' I burst into tears. That was a really key moment. I knew my interest was in choreography because I got really emotional about it." She transferred to the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, and O'Hare told her to get back in touch after graduation.

But first, the teenager had to complete her first commission, for London's Yorke Dance Project. Artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell was one of Edmonds' contemporary-dance teachers at the RBS. "I knew from observing her in class that she didn't just take a combination and try to do it exactly as I had given it," says Yorke- Edgell. "She had a way of being creative."

Her time at Rambert encouraged her unique mix of classicism and modernity. "I learned Cunningham, Graham, Limón. We did a bit of Gaga," she says, citing Pite, William Forsythe and Mats Ek as additional influences. "We had choreographers come in with their own style. I really like watching to see what resonates with me. Like, 'I loved the way that they did that turn; I wonder if I could re-create that in my own way?' "

While Edmonds says that she is still finding her style, she has a clear sense it is "neoclassical, but it has slightly more groundedness, and really fluid. I also really am inspired by music, so I try to make my choreography as musical as possible."



Full Speed Ahead

O'Hare believes so strongly in Edmonds that he renewed her Young Choreographer contract for a second year, then transitioned her to part-time for her current, third year. "I have the flexibility to create outside, but I also have a position here," Edmonds says, "so I can really find my feet."

Sitting in on rehearsals with McGregor—and emailing him for advice—has helped prepare Edmonds for a flood of small commissions: two dance films, short ballets for the RBS, the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company, Northern Ballet Studio, and a duet for the McGregor-curated Draft Works residency. She created a solo for English National Ballet artist Isabelle Brouwers, who danced The Pelican in ENB's 2016 Emerging Dancer competition.


English National Ballet's Isabelle Brouwers in Edmonds "The Pelican." Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

"I really see her becoming one of the next star British choreographers," says Brouwers, 21, who was a couple years ahead of Edmonds at the RBS. "You never feel like you're going to work with her—it's fun. She allows for us to give our input, and she works with our strengths."

O'Hare feels that Edmonds' talent speaks for itself, but acknowledges that "we're all very much aware of the lack of opportunities, or perceived lack of opportunities, for women choreographers." Edmonds is frequently asked for her opinion on that issue, which she takes in stride. "I wouldn't want anyone to commission me just because I'm female," she says. "But at the same time, there needs to be a balance between men and women. I'm still answering those questions."

As she clarifies her choreographic voice on the world stage, Edmonds also keeps the pressure in perspective. "With this career, sometimes you never know what you're doing in the next couple months, which is frightening. But it's all part of it," she says. "Obviously, they believed in me, and I needed to believe in myself to continue. I'm just really living in the moment."

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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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