Gemma Bond, an ABT corps member, prefers choreographic opportunities over starring roles. Jim Lafferty.

Women to Watch: Three Rising Choreographers You Should Know

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of Pointe.

If you've been keeping up on developments in the ballet world, you've probably had cause to ask: Where are the female choreographers?

“I get asked to do interviews a lot because of that question," says Emery LeCrone, a freelance choreographer and dancer based in New York City, “instead of just to talk about my work."


The skewed ratio of male to female ballet choreographers has long been established, inspiring countless distraught—and necessary—conversations and articles (including in this magazine). The reasons for this imbalance—why more men than women are making work at top companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre—run deep, rooted in an ethos of conformity that follows female dancers from their first ballet class to the white acts of Swan Lake. Men, being a rarer breed in ballet, tend to get more specialized treatment from a young age. And at the professional level, women often rehearse longer hours (think of all the story ballets with multiple scenes for the female corps), giving them less time, energy and mental space to make their own work.

Yet in addition to women like Crystal Pite, Jessica Lang and Aszure Barton—who have choreographed for the likes of Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Joffrey and ABT—a young crop of female ballet choreographers is steadily gaining recognition. Pointe talked with three up-and-coming artists—Gabrielle Lamb, Gemma Bond and LeCrone—about their artistic paths, current projects and how they balance their dual lives as choreographers and dancers.

Gabrielle Lamb

Gabrielle Lamb (fair right) finds inspiration through improvisation. Photo by Jaqlin Medlock, Courtesy Lamb.

Gabrielle Lamb recalls a time, before she began to choreograph, when "improvisation" was a foreign concept. "I remember asking one of my colleagues, who was doing improv onstage, 'What if you don't know what to do next?' " she says.

At 39, having created pieces for Ballet Memphis, Milwaukee Ballet and Hubbard Street 2, among other companies, she's put that question behind her. Since choreographing her first solo in 2003, while dancing with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Lamb has discovered the delights of making in the moment. It was improvising that initially drew her to choreography. "I realized that maybe my body had ideas that my head didn't understand," says Lamb, who received a 2014 Princess Grace Award for Choreography. "There's this spinal intelligence where certain things come from."

Now she often begins a process by filming her own improvisations. "I'm interested in how energy flows through the body," she says, "and how the body language we use everyday could be magnified or distorted into dance." As a freelance artist, she devotes most of her time to choreographing on others, though she continues to stay active as a dancer. Through a New York City Center fellowship last year, she commissioned a solo for herself, by Adam Barruch, while also creating new work for a group of dancers she auditioned and hired.

Her advice to young choreographers? "Don't feel like you have to have everything figured out before you start. I think that's what held me back for so long. I didn't understand that you have to start something without knowing where it will end."

Upcoming project: A premiere for Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Q Dance series, June 10–12.

​Gemma Bond

Gemma Bond rehearsing Cassandra Trenary for ABT's Innovation Initiative. Jim Lafferty.

Growing up as a student at The Royal Ballet School, Gemma Bond was, in her own words, "not very assertive"—except when it came to choreographing. Cast in her peers' work for the school's choreography competitions, she often found her 11-year-old self saying, "No, no, no—this way would be better."

"I thought, I'm becoming one of those really annoying people," she laughs, "so maybe I should just choreograph my own piece."

That creative spark has flourished during her time at ABT, where she joined the corps in 2008. She has participated several times in The Innovation Initiative, a series for emerging choreographers organized by David Hallberg and Kevin McKenzie, in addition to making pieces for New York Theatre Ballet, Youth America Grand Prix and Intermezzo Dance Company, a fledgling troupe founded by ABT soloist Craig Salstein. Her latest accolade is a fellowship from the New York Choreographic Institute—"the most exciting thing that's happened to me," she says—which comes with space, time and a stipend to do whatever she pleases. She's planning a ballet version of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, which she'll unveil at an invite-only showing in April.

Bond, 32, describes herself as "very content to be in the corps de ballet." She pushes harder for choreographic opportunities than she does for star roles, and while some dancers spend the off-season guesting with other companies, she spends hers in the studio. Despite flirting with contemporary moves, she always comes back to a more classical vocabulary. In that vein, she aspires to create a large-scale work for a female corps. "I've always been extremely proud of the corps de ballet," she says. "I get very excited by dancing with my friends, when we're bang-on and our lines are amazing. It's an incredible feeling."

Upcoming project: A new work for New York Theatre Ballet, June 18–20.

​Emery LeCrone

LeCrone during NYCB's 2011 New York Choreographic Institute. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy NYCI.

At 28, Emery LeCrone has a chock-full resumé. Her crisp, geometrically inventive style has earned her commissions from Oregon Ballet Theatre, Colorado Ballet, Saint Louis Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, the National Choreographers Initiative, Juilliard and the Guggenheim's Works & Process series, to name just a few. She also dances with the Metropolitan Opera, a steady gig that gives her both the stability and flexibility to choreograph.

The challenges LeCrone faces, she says, have more to do with being a freelancer than with being female. "I'm just trying to get consistent work, and that has nothing to do with whether I'm a woman or a man."

LeCrone got an early start when, as a 19-year-old student at North Carolina Dance Theatre's Chautauqua Summer Dance Festival, she was required to choreograph. Quite simply, she says, "I loved it." Both she and Bond encourage young artists to generate as much work as possible—even if that means just noodling around in the studio and inviting friends to watch. "The number one thing is to keep making it and putting it out there, and things will happen," LeCrone says.

Having made a lot of "15-minute concert dance and 5-minute pas de deux," LeCrone wants to move toward creating longer works with larger casts. She also hopes to collaborate with a composer. While music is one inspiration for her, she gets most excited when talking about her dancers—their backgrounds, personalities, idiosyncrasies. "What inspires me most is being in the studio with them," she says. "When I choreograph a piece, it's about the people who are in it. It's about how we relate as human beings."

Upcoming projects: YAGP Gala, April 16; evening-length program for the Joyce Theater's Ballet Festival, Aug. 13–14.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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