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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.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.