Adrian Blake Mitchell opens access for local ballet dancers of color
By Bridgette M. Redman
Adrian Blake Mitchell is determined to see that other young people—especially youth of color—are able to have the same access to ballet that he did.
Mitchell and his partner, Andrea Lassakova, recently fled Russia after Ukraine was invaded, leaving behind his role in a dance company where he was the first male dancer of color. Now living in Playa Vista and working hand-in-hand with Westside Ballet of Santa Monica, a place where he once got his training and has since performed with, he’s looking to open opportunities for people to become professional dancers regardless of their socio-economic status.
“We’re working on a program where we can access communities that usually wouldn’t be exposed to dance,” Mitchell says. “It can take the weight off of the parents, because that’s one of the biggest barriers—parents can’t take kids to ballet and pay for ballet while they’re trying to work.”
For the first program, it will be a one-day free dance program offering such classes as ballet and jazz. They’ll also provide transportation and food.
They have two goals in mind. One is to find young people who could become professional dancers and the other is to foster a love of dance among the broader community as a way of keeping the art form alive and thriving.
“It’s the kind of project I’ve been dying for,” Mitchell says. “This time it’s going to be just a one-day program, but we’re really hoping to build it out and have it be even a few weeks. When I was in New York, I mentioned it to some people at the major ballet schools and they all loved the idea. Maybe it’s something that can become a program that we have in more than one state.”
He’ll also be teaching a masterclass sometime this summer that will be open to young people in Los Angeles, Playa Vista and elsewhere around LA County.
The work with Westside Ballet fits in with the goals he has with his own nonprofit, Dance in Color. Formed two years ago with a group of friends, the organization started out giving scholarships to dancers of color. Now they are working to expand it—to raise more money, build a board and to engage in more activities.
“We just have so much interest from potential dancers, some of the most talented dancers I’ve ever seen, who need scholarships,” Mitchell says. “These programs that we’re working to build are so important. It’s a matter of getting the funds to do it, so we’re in a very intense fundraising stage.”
Mitchell’s own life experiences give him empathy for students of color who are struggling today. Growing up, there were a mix of people who accepted him like anyone else, but others had a double standard where others were held up as being more talented even though they would never achieve what he did.
Russia was also an interesting experience because Mitchell says he was the first and only Black man performing professionally. While in St. Petersburg and Moscow the audience was always receptive, sometimes he’d go out to obscure places in Russia where he didn’t see a single Black person. He says there was often a reaction to him based on his skin color, though usually it was a welcoming one because for others it was something totally new.
“There’s a huge contrast between Russia and America,” Mitchell says. “On that subject (race), in Russia there is a lot of insensitivity. But in America, we should know better because of our history and there’s just so much work to be done.”
That said, Mitchell points out that there is work happening and that a shift is taking place. He stresses that he is optimistic about the future. There have been a turnover of directors in companies and schools, and more people are championing diversity.
There are several changes he would like to see take place. One is to look at the pay gap between dancers and directors. His mother worked for the NBA for a long time and pointed out that the highest paid person in the organization is a star player, not the coach. It’s a similar shift in power that Mitchell would like to see in the dance world.
He also believes that if the dance world focused more on technique, it would start to lose a lot of its racial bias. Finally, he finds it crucial that opportunities be created for young dancers of color so that the playing field can be leveled.
“It won’t happen organically, it has to be a concerted effort,” Mitchell says. “It can’t just be allowed to happen. It must be pushed, never sacrificing a standard, but always being inclusive and specifically making sure that dance is accessible to dancers of color.”
Meanwhile, both he and Lassakova are hoping to get back on stage. Lassakova is auditioning for ballet companies around the country. Mitchell says he has been taking his time to make sure he is headed in the right direction, but that performing at Westside Ballet on Mother’s Day weekend was rewarding and enjoyable, a contrast to the intense schedule that he had while in Russia.
Mitchell would love to see more people in LA appreciate dance as an art form. He’d like for every seat at every performance to be filled and to have people there from all walks of life. He’s met too many people in the U.S. who think ballet is for “fancy, rich white people,” when he knows it can be for everyone. He wants people to come and experience something that could have an amazing effect on them.
It’s another place where he draws a contrast between his home country and Russia. While he recounts many terrible things that go on in Russia, Russians are huge supporters of art and of ballet in particular. There are many dance companies and they put on two or three shows a day in each venue. Their capacity for each show hovers at 99%—a capacity that held for more than 900 shows a year.
“How they did that was really outreach to the community, and, of course, it took them hundreds of years,” Mitchell says.
He hopes to some day be in a leadership role in the states and to work toward that sort of reception. For now, Mitchell will be working his magic with Westside Ballet and Dance in Color to expand the outreach of the art form in this community, constantly building toward a better world for ballet dancers.”
Adrian Blake Mitchell
Dance in Color