Arthur Mitchell Talks Race and Balanchine
Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Darren Thomas/QPAC
Misty Copeland's rise to principal status and stardom this year has thankfully prompted conversations about race and ballet. It's also prompted excitement around the idea of "firsts," though often mistakenly. Misty is the first African American female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, and this is huge and important. She is not the first African American principal at ABT (Desmond Richardson came before her), though I've heard many say that, nor is she the first African American principal at a major American company (some, though not enough, have come before her). Misty is clear about recognizing those who came before her when she discusses her accomplishments, but others sometimes aren't.
One of the most important black dancers in the history of American ballet is Arthur Mitchell (a 1975 Dance Magazine Award winner), who danced for New York City Ballet beginning in 1955, and later co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem. On Monday, I attended a panel at Barnard College commemorating Mitchell and his archives, which have recently found a home at Barnard and Columbia University. Mitchell reminded me of what (and who) is missing from conversations about race and ballet.
Arthur Mitchell and George Balanchine. Photo by Martha Swope, courtesy NYPL for the Performing Arts.
Though Mitchell joked about how people have forgotten about him in all the Misty hubbub, even he was careful to point out the black dancers who came before him. He lauded Balanchine for having progressive ideas about race, and for dreaming of one day having a half-black company. Mitchell talked about one of Balanchine's earliest muses, Betty Nichols, a black dancer who with Tanaquil Le Clercq traveled with the choreographer before he founded New York City Ballet.
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams rehearse Agon. Photo Martha Swope, courtesy NYPL for the Performing Arts
What stuck with me the most were Mitchell's words about Agon. Balanchine made the steamy pas de deux for his famous 1957 ballet on Mitchell and white ballerina Diana Adams. Having a black man and a white woman dance together was a statement, and with the added element of sensuality, Agon was revolutionary. Mitchell insisted that the contrast between the color of his skin and the color of the ballerina's skin is part of the choreography, and that casting white men makes for a different ballet. These days, Amar Ramasar often dances this role, but many white men have danced it, too.
Here's another early version of Agon with Mitchell, this time partnering Allegra Kent:
I hope that NYCB continues to honor Agon's history by casting dancers of color in this role. (Who knows, maybe it'll be Taylor Stanley's next big break!) And I hope we can ground our conversations about race and dance in history by remembering the work of pioneers like Mitchell.
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: