Meet the 8 Ballet Dancers From Dance Magazine's 2020 "25 to Watch" List

Yesterday, Dance Magazine released its much-awaited, annual "25 to Watch" list. With 2020 just around the corner, now's the perfect time to get to know these breakout dancers, choreographers and companies (see the full list here).

Spanning dance genres, the diverse list includes eight ballet dancers. And though we admit we're a bit biased, we think they're a pretty incredible bunch (you might even recognize two from our 2019 Stars of the Corps). These dancers are bringing a fresh take to classical works and providing inspiration for contemporary choreographers. They've stood out from the group, wowing audiences with their charisma, virtuosity and versatility. Read on to find out what makes them dancers to watch.

Joseph Sissens

A lean, bare-chested man leaps into the air. His front leg is at a 45 degree angle to the ground, the back one in a perpendicular attitude. His head tips to the ceiling as his right arm reaches gracefully upward, the left outflung to his side. The bright red trousers he wears flare with the motion. Upstage, another man costumed identically but for the black color of his trousers looks on.

Sissens (leaping) with Benjamin Ella in Wayne McGregor's Obsidian Tear

Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH

Joseph Sissens' long, long legs are the first thing you notice. The 22-year-old from Cambridge, England, is a dancer of lean elegance, expansive lines and beautiful footwork. Choreographers at The Royal Ballet make a beeline for him. Wayne McGregor—a man with an astute eye for talented dancers in the corps—cast him in Obsidian Tear and Yugen. Twyla Tharp chose him for The Illustrated 'Farewell'. And the first artist's appearance in new work by contemporary choreographer Alexander Whitley and a slinking, grooving solo, jojo, by up-and-comer Charlotte Edmonds suggests a dancer with a curious mind, as well as a protean facility for whatever physical demands are thrown his way.

Outside of The Royal, Sissens stood out among a superlative lineup in the Merce Cunningham celebration Night of 100 Solos, where he gave Cunningham's exacting geometry a gossamer edge. But he's flexing his elongated muscles in some classics, too, making his debut as Lensky in John Cranko's Onegin this year. —Lyndsey Winship

Zenon Zubyk

A red-headed male dancer leaps. His right leg crosses straight in front, while his left bends into a parallel attitude behind him. He is twisted toward his back leg, elbows bent at 90-degree angles with his back forearm stretching up and front forearm pointed down.

Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC

With lanky limbs and wild red hair, Zenon Zubyk revels in a uniquely awkward virtuosity. During an unforgettable solo in To this day—a work Emily Molnar crafted with Ballet BC's brilliant dancers-as-collaborators—the 22-year-old masterfully navigates between a comedic courting ritual and mesmerizing showmanship. In an insect-like mating dance set to Jimi Hendrix, he turns himself inside out for an unamused female observer, somehow meshing gangliness with serious cool.

The dancer is a recent alumnus of the Arts Umbrella Graduate Program, and after one year at Ballet BC's emerging artist rank, Zubyk was promoted to full company artist for the 2019–20 season. Although he has plenty of technical tricks up his sleeve—he was a comp kid prodigy who won the 2013 New York Teen Male Best Dancer title at The Dance Awards—he investigates movement with extreme care for detail. Molnar will leave her artistic director post at the end of this season, but Zubyk's idiosyncratic performances guarantee he'll continue to be a standout. —Jen Peters

Lizzie Tripp

A red-headed ballerina balances in a forced arch back attitude en pointe. Her arms are bent at the elbows and in slight opposition to the twist of her open attitude so her forearms frame her face.

Tom Davenport, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet

Contemporary movement flows from Lizzie Tripp like a Shakespeare sonnet. In the opening solo of Enrico Morelli's The Noise of Whispers in 2017, she bewitched audiences with supple airiness, nuanced complexity and heartfelt intensity. Now in her fourth season with Milwaukee Ballet, the 23-year-old has not only performed featured roles in several contemporary ballets, but has also appeared as the Snow Queen in The Nutcracker and the Enchantress in Michael Pink's Beauty and The Beast—a role she originated in 2018.

Tripp trained at the company's official school and started her career at its second company, growing up and into her artistic identity within the organization. Dancing in Pink's Peter Pan this spring as a company member, she'll come full circle: She performed in the premiere as a child. —Steve Sucato

Tommie Kesten

Kesten as the Fairy of Energy in The Sleeping Beauty

Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT

Tommie Kesten is not one to go unnoticed. The 19-year-old Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member couples joie de vivre with mature movement choices. A Pittsburgh native, she joined the company in 2018 and has already garnered featured roles.

As the "tall girl" in Balanchine's "Rubies," Kesten, who at 5' 4" is not the traditional height for the role, filled the stage, her beautiful extension paired with bright, darting eyes and a brilliant smile. In The Sleeping Beauty, she took a thoughtful approach to her pacing and characterization in the Bluebird pas de deux. The athletic dancer's unquenchable drive has her on a fast track to company stardom. —Steve Sucato

Zimmi Coker

A short, red-headed ballet dancer dressed as Little Red Riding Hood stares out at the audience with wide eyes. She clutches flowers in both hands as she peeks out from beneath her red robe, a wicker basket by her feet.

Coker as Red Riding Hood in The Sleeping Beauty

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

She has only been a fully fledged member of the corps since June 2018, but already American Ballet Theatre's Zimmi Coker is popping up everywhere. She tore into Michelle Dorrance's highly syncopated, tap-infused movement in Dream within a Dream (deferred). She scampered about the stage with feverish intensity as the young Adele in Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre. And she exuded confidence and joy as one of the two sneaker-clad "stompers" that open and close Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room.

What you notice about Coker is the clarity and intention with which she dances. Whatever she's doing, from the smallest character role to an ensemble part, she does full-out. "I've learned the importance of expressing detail with each movement," she says. "And I try to be mentally fully present for any rehearsal or performance." It shows. —Marina Harss

Mira Nadon

To the left, small groups of dancers dressed in gray leotards and tights (pink for the women, gray for the men) cluster in small circles facing in, hiding a dancer in the center from sight as they clasp their hands overhead. To the right, a long limbed dancer with striking features leans with one pointe-shoe clad foot hovering just above the stage in what is almost an open lunge. She arches toward her back leg as her arms form a slightly over-extended 'V' above her shoulders.

Nadon (right) in Justin Peck's Principia

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Eyes find Mira Nadon quickly onstage, even when she's stationed in the tall-girl back row of the corps. The 19-year-old New York City Ballet dancer has an open, large-featured face that's strikingly readable from the audience. And her dancing is every bit as legible: expressive but never sentimental, authoritative but never overbearing. She says what she wants to say in simple sentences, free of italicization.

Nadon can also parse multiple choreographic languages. As the Fairy of Courage in The Sleeping Beauty, she delivers Petipa with nary an accent. Choreographer Pam Tanowitz's sophisticated phrases are the dance equivalent of tongue twisters, but last spring, in Tanowitz's Bartók Ballet, Nadon spoke them fluently. And in her mother tongue, Balanchine, she's unstoppable. Her debut as the siren soloist in "Rubies" last fall had polish, panache, power—a performance in full voice. You won't need to seek out her face in the corps crowd for long. —Margaret Fuhrer

Tobias Praetorius

A bare-chested male dancer lifts the corners of two panels of marley, arms raised slightly in front of his sides. His shadow is cast on a piece of fabric just upstage.

Praetorius in Jiří Kylián's 27'52"

Henrik Stenberg, Courtesy RDB

As a young student at the Royal Danish Ballet School, Tobias Praetorius got to perch in a tree onstage during August Bournonville's A Folk Tale and watch the dancers below, imagining himself in their place. Now 23 and in the corps, he is a mainstay at the company, where he has danced everything from the mild-mannered troll Viderik in A Folk Tale to Benvolio in John Neumeier's Romeo and Juliet, as well as works by Jiří Kylián, Liam Scarlett and Cathy Marston. But what's unique about Praetorius is how he embraces all aspects of his craft: He's equally at home in character and pure dance roles, and is also a budding choreographer.

During a recent appearance in New York City, Praetorius gave a riveting rendition—slithering, androgynous, menacing—of the vindictive witch, Madge, in La Sylphide. A few moments later he was dancing the first variation from the tarantella in Bournonville's Napoli with total ease, displaying that plush Bournonville plié and relaxed upper body. "I'm happy the Royal Danish Ballet still produces dancers like Tobias," his former RDB colleague Ulrik Birkkjaer says of him. "That sense of character and storytelling, at that level, and at such a young age, is rare." —Marina Harss

Airi Igarashi

A smiling ballerina dressed in a white romantic tutu balances in an open arabesque. She is oriented to the side of the stage, her arms stretched before her with palms facing up, as though offering something.

Igarashi in La Sylphide

Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

When Atlanta Ballet debuted Yuri Possokhov's Nutcracker just over a year ago, a then-22-year-old Airi Igarashi gave an opening-night star turn. As a second-year company member, she carried the ballet, dancing both major pas de deux in the role of Marie. Partnered by Sergio Masero-Olarte, Igarashi spun and burst into broad, luminous lines, looping, diving and etching spirals across the space.

Igarashi trained at the Reiko Yamamoto Ballet School in Gunma, Japan, and accepted a Prix de Lausanne scholarship from Hamburg Ballet's school in 2013. She joined Atlanta Ballet in 2017 after impressing artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin with a variation from Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and her artistry has only grown more compelling since. Her performances in Don Quixote and Bournonville's La Sylphide have shown the warmth, generosity and multi-dimensionality of a rising ballerina. —Cynthia Bond Perry

Credits for header photo, left to right, from top: Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Desardouin; Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Hubbard Street Dance Chicago; Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB; Jonathan Potter, Courtesy Carlon; Dallas Koby, Courtesy Edwards; Tony Turner, Courtesy Ayorinde; Jeff Downie, Courtesy GroundWorks DanceTheater; Tom Davenport, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet; Ryan Duffin, Courtesy Yergens; Maria Baranova, Courtesy Chan; Sachs Grootjans, Courtesy RDB; Andrew Eccles, Courtesy AAADT; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jonathan Hsu, Courtesy Crothers; Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH; Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT; Marissa Mooney, Courtesy Taylor; Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Hickey; Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT; Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC; Courtesy Man; Dean Paul, Courtesy Ensemble Español; Steve Smith, Courtesy Edson; Mike Lindle, Courtesy Garner

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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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