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By Brenda Dixon-Gottschild
To watch Teneise Mitchell in Camille A. Brown’s Those Who See Light, which premiered at New York City’s Joyce Theater last June, is to witness a union of understanding and execution. Mitchell exudes charisma as she leads six other Philadanco women in Brown’s challenging choreography. Moving from low-level duck walks—a postmodern elaboration on a hip hop B-boy move—to rapid-fire air work and elegant extensions, Mitchell simultaneously attacks and surrenders to the quicksilver moods of the piece.
“Camille’s piece wasn’t my first solo, but it allowed me to explore my internal self and have artistic freedom,” says Mitchell. “My timing, accent, and even the quality of the movement could change, so it could be different every night.”
A stunning 5' 7", with long, lean arms and legs, Mitchell stands out in soloist roles. Lithe yet sharp, elegant yet sassy, Mitchell has fast become a favorite of choreographers and audiences in Philadanco’s hometown of Philadelphia as well as on tour. Now in her fourth season with the company, Mitchell has earned nearly as much recognition from colleagues as audiences. “She has a beautiful quality,” says Debora Chase-Hicks, the company’s rehearsal director. “It’s very feminine, but underneath that there’s this power that’s surprising. You don’t have to coach it out of her.”
Mitchell, 26, began her training at the Evelyn Ott School of Dance in Norfolk, Virginia, where she studied with Denise Ott Land. “Jazz, hip hop, tap—everything you can imagine I got from this woman,” Mitchell says. With Land’s coaching, Mitchell became involved in competitions, traveling across the country to compete through high school. She attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she became a jazz performance major, studying with Ronen Koresh, Wayne St. David, and Philadanco’s assistant artistic director Kim Bears-Bailey.
Yet before arriving in Philadelphia, she’d never heard of Philadanco. “The competition world and concert world just don’t mix,” Mitchell says. Then one night she saw the company perform Christopher Huggins’ Enemy Behind the Gates and felt drawn by the intensity of the performance. “I saw myself being onstage with them,” she recalls. “There was technique, style, aggression, and that’s the way I move naturally.”
But seeing herself there was only the first step. “I didn’t hire her when she auditioned in 2005,” says Philadanco founder and executive artistic director Joan Myers Brown. “Having just graduated from college, she was still working for a grade. I told her I didn’t need her to work to get an ‘A,’ I needed her to dance!” Distraught but determined, Mitchell auditioned for Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, was accepted into their second company, performed with them for a year, then hightailed it back to Philadelphia in 2006 to audition again. This time she made it.
She picked up Philadanco’s style quickly, says Bears-Bailey. “Our dancers come in talented, but we have to get them to look like a Philadanco dancer, and Teneise honed that early.” She notes that Mitchell allowed herself to change completely with every work.
“No one had ever told me before that I had to do research to think about my character,” says Mitchell. “I’m thinking, ‘research?’ That really made a difference in my life.” Her reward came when Christopher Huggins, who had made the earlier Philadanco piece that she loved, cast her in a lead role in 2008 in his From Dawn ’Til Dusk.
Recently married to web designer Hassan Ellis, Mitchell feels good about the trajectory she’s on. Though she cares deeply about all the opportunities she’s been given, she has a special feeling for Camille Brown’s Those Who See Light. “It was the highest level I’d ever reached,” she says. “Now that I know what I’m capable of, I hope to go higher.” While she sets high standards for herself, her commitment comes from a deep belief in dance itself. Her personal mantra sums it up: “You control your destiny.” It’s a message she tries to convey in the master classes she teaches for Philadanco, and it even appears in her e-mail signature. She particularly likes to share it with dance students. “Never let anyone steal your passion,” says Mitchell. “Believe in yourself. See what you want. Speak it into existence, and it will be!”
Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is writing a biography of Joan Myers Brown.
Photo courtesy Mitchell.