Meet the 6 Ballet Dancers From Dance Magazine's 2021 "25 to Watch" List

Our friends at Dance Magazine announced their annual "25 to Watch" list on January 1, and we can't think of a better way to ring in 2021. The round-up of emerging talent features dancers, choreographers and companies you should know, spanning multiple dance genres. And, of course, we can't help but feel excited about the six young ballet dancers on the list (you may even recognize one from our 2020 Stars of the Corps). Read on to learn more about them, then be sure to read the full "25 to Watch" list here.

Laura Morton

Laura Morton, a young white woman dressed in a leotard matching her skin tone, poses in retir\u00e9, supporting leg in pli\u00e9. She arches side over the working leg, arms gracefully imitating the angles of her legs.

Daylilies Photography, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre

In a visceral solo in Ana Maria Lucaciu's Long Ago and Only Once, Laura Morton advances across the floor, energy streaming from her core as she scoops her limbs upward, retreats and pivots, arms swiping as if wresting herself from confinement. In George Staib's starkly contemporary fence, she propels her body across the stage with openhearted abandon, her intensity at once hyperalert and serenely calm.

"She has an uncanny way of imprinting herself into the space," says Staib. "Nothing is forced. It feels organic, and that comes from a lot of self-discovery—not residing in one interpretation, but knowing that everything can shift in a matter of milliseconds."

Morton trained with Appalachian Ballet Company and Houston Ballet before finding the wider scope she craved as a Fellowship student at Atlanta Ballet, then led by John McFall. Her apprentice year brought featured roles in works by Gemma Bond, Liam Scarlett and David Bintley. But then-incoming artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin's more classically restrained approach wasn't a fit for Morton—her full-body expressiveness couldn't be reined in.

Immediately, Atlanta's Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre snapped up Morton, who also joined staibdance a year later. Staib's collaborative methods, which involve interplay between tension and release and deep personal inquiry, have freed her to discover a softer and more pliable core, which now drives her expansive reach. Morton is gaining traction in Atlanta's contemporary ballet scene as quickly as the troupes themselves. —Cynthia Bond Perry

Vincenzo Di Primo

Vincenzo Di Primo, a tanned male dancer wearing black trousers, seems to float against a white background, head inclined toward his left leg as it bends in a slight attitude.

Mitchell Jordan, Courtesy Sin Gogolak PR

It can be hard for a dancer to stand out at Complexions Contemporary Ballet, where everything is more. The costumes are more dramatic, the music is louder, the dancers' legs soar higher, and they perform bigger, faster, further. It can be even more challenging for a dancer to stand out in their first season, as they adjust. But amidst the calculated chaos, Vincenzo Di Primo is a steadying presence. His power is measured—calm, uninterrupted and mature. Nothing in his dancing is forced as he shifts seamlessly from balletic movement to striking lines.

His versatility stems from experience. Di Primo's first exposure to dance was ballroom. He later studied hip hop, and then contemporary, before being introduced to ballet. Di Primo graduated from the Vienna State Opera ballet academy, and, after competing in the Prix de Lausanne, joined The Royal Ballet as an apprentice.

There, he worked with Crystal Pite and Wayne McGregor, before moving on to companies in Dublin and Athens, and performing on an Italian TV competition called "Amici." But now, he's found a perfect fit for his talents at Complexions. —Cadence Neenan

Bianca Scudamore

Bianca Scudamore, a pale white woman dressed in a white Romantic tutu and pointe shoes, balances in an extended first arabesque line, torso diving towards the floor. Behind her, a corps of identically dressed women pose in neat lines in B-plus, hands crossed at the wrist.

Scudamore in Giselle

Yonathan Kellerman, Courtesy POB

After the Paris Opéra Ballet School's annual performances in 2017, one student's name was on everyone's lips: Bianca Scudamore, who sailed through Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude with astonishing technical facility and the joyful ease of a seasoned soloist. Born in Brisbane, the long-legged dancer had realized her dream of earning a spot at the French school in 2015. Upon joining the Paris Opéra Ballet after graduation, she was quickly nicknamed the "baby ballerina" to follow.

She hasn't disappointed. In soloist roles, including the peasant pas de deux in Giselle and Olympia in John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias, as well as successful appearances on the local gala circuit, the 21-year-old has found a balance between youthful virtuosity and the polished restraint prized by French ballet insiders. While foreigners are still in the minority at POB, Scudamore was promoted two years in a row at the internal concours de promotion, rising to the rank of sujet (demi-soloist) in 2019, and finished second in the Varna International Ballet Competition's juniors category that same year. With a little help from POB's artistic team, a charmed career beckons. —Laura Cappelle

Amanda Morgan

Amanda Morgan, a caramel skinned Black woman wearing a pale leotard and pointe shoes that match her skin tone, balances in sous-sus, arms at her sides, looking over her shoulder toward her back foot.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

Amanda Morgan will be heard. The Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member's long limbs paint through space with a gentleness that contrasts with the strength of her voice as a creator and leader. She founded The Seattle Project, an interdisciplinary artists' collective dedicated to creating and presenting community-accessible work, in 2019. The Project—whose collaborators have included dancers from PNB and Spectrum Dance Theater—held its first presentation, "The How of it Sped," at Northwest Film Forum last February. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Morgan and fellow PNB dancer Cecilia Iliesiu founded a mentorship program to connect PNB School students with company members. Last summer, she spoke out against racism and police brutality at protests following the death of George Floyd.

Morgan's community advocacy and delicate yet striking contemporary movement came together in "Musings," the digital work she created alongside Nia-Amina Minor for Seattle Dance Collective last summer, exploring spatial injustice against Black and brown people.

In the fall, PNB commissioned Morgan, who made pieces for the company's Next Step choreographic showcase in 2018 and 2019, to create a site-specific work as bonus content for its first-ever digital season. "Society may have tried to silence the voices of the marginalized, but you will never silence me," she proclaimed at a June demonstration.

The dance world is listening. —Lydia Murray

Kennedy Brown

Kennedy Brown, a young white woman dressed in trunks and a bra top, smiles slightly as her legs extend to a side split, the male dancer partnering her gripping her extended arms above the elbow to provide a counterbalance.

Brown as Stella in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's A Streetcar Named Desire

Heather Thorne, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

In 2019, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa cast an apprentice in the lead role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at Nashville Ballet. Displaying a potent mixture of sensuality and vulnerability alongside sleek technique, Kennedy Brown's performances more than substantiated Lopez Ochoa's faith in her.

The former competition dancer from Indiana capped her early training with Magaly Suarez at the Art of Classical Ballet in Florida. She was a Top 30 dancer on Season 14 of "So You Think You Can Dance" before joining Nashville Ballet 2 in 2017.

"There is a real warmth about her, about the way she moves and communicates out to the audience that I really like," says artistic director Paul Vasterling. "She is incredibly ambitious and focused, which is what it takes to be a leading dancer." With girl-next-door charm and a world-conquering stage presence, Brown, now a full company member, is well on her way. —Steve Sucato

Maria Coelho

Maria Coelho, a Latina woman, balances in retir\u00e9 at the barre with other dancers, wearing black socks, sweatpants, a long-sleeved shirt and a puffy vest.

Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Making an instant impression is Maria Coelho's superpower. The 22-year-old's stage presence is awash with charisma, which she pairs with an exceptional attack-driven technique. "Every choreographer that comes in immediately notices her," says Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini. "She has a very particular physicality, powerful and commanding. Every time there is one of those strong female roles in our repertory, she is considered for it." Case in point: As a first-year corps member, Coelho was chosen by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to dance the lead role of Rosalia in the second cast of Vendetta, A Mafia Story. (Performances were subsequently postponed due to the coronavirus.)

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Coelho studied dance at Balletarrj Escola de Dança and American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School before joining Tulsa Ballet II in 2016. She was offered a place in the main company as an apprentice in 2019, and was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2020. "She has been chosen by dance rather than her choosing to dance," Angelini says. Of the strong female roles Coelho has yet to perform, she says Kitri from Don Quixote is at the top of her wish list. No doubt she is destined to get there soon. —Steve Sucato

Header photo credits, left to right, top to bottom: Melissa Blackall, Courtesy Boston Dance Theater; Daylilies Photography, Courtesy Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre; David DeSilva, Courtesy Axis Dance Company; Kevin Calixte, Courtesy Désir; Yonathan Kellerman, Courtesy POB; Ian Teraoka, Courtesy Project Home; Beatrix Molnar, Courtesy Comitre; Vanessa Fortin, Courtesy Margolick; Heather Thorne, Courtesy Nashville Ballet; Quinn Wharton; Erin Baiano, Courtesy Flores; Jayme Thornton; Courtesy Tulsa Ballet; Mitchell Jordan, Courtesy Sin Gogolak PR; Amanda Gentile, Courtesy Sandoval; Rachel Neville, Courtesy Bhargava; James Jin, Courtesy Diaz; Tina Ruisinger/Rolex, Courtesy Touré; Natalie Tsui, with creative consultation by Marco Farroni, Courtesy J. Bouey; Daphne Jaramillo, Courtesy Davis; Ta Nycia Wooden, Courtesy Raianna Brown; Bogliasco Foundation, Courtesy Greene; Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB; Florian Thévenard, Courtesy Doherty; Devin Marie Muñoz/Muñoz Motions, Courtesy Minor; Saadat Maksat, Courtesy Yang

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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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