A New Breed of Ballerina

When Ashley Bouder steps on stage at New York City Ballet, you can feel the audience’s excitement.


As she whips through a rapid sequence of turns, people literally sit forward in their seats. Often Bouder will hold a balance for a moment where the allegro tempo seemingly doesn’t permit even a fraction of a pause, and then she’ll break into a delighted grin, as if surprised by her own phrasing. No one would guess that she dances five, sometimes six, physically exhausting roles each week.


NYCB’s ballerinas have epitomized the style, look and technical range of classical dancers in the U.S. since Balanchine first launched his school and his company. During his lifetime, Balanchine’s dancers always had distinctive personalities, and the company’s current roster continues that tradition. But today’s NYCB principals need stamina and versatility beyond what was required of their predecessors. Gone are the days when ballerinas performed only two or three times a week in a repertoire that was overwhelmingly the work of two choreographers, Balanchine and Robbins. Nowadays it’s not unusual for a NYCB principal to perform nearly every night in a range of work not only by Balanchine, Robbins and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, but also by numerous guest choreographers. The company’s 2009 spring season will present 40 ballets, and a total of 56 performances.


“Being a principal dancer today is a very demanding job,” says Rosemary Dunleavy, who has been a ballet mistress for NYCB since 1971. “It’s harder physically because the company works more than we did in the past. And the dancers must perform all these different styles.”


Ashley Bouder, Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin all rocketed to principal status early in their careers. All three have already danced full-length dramatic ballets, as well as the company’s bread-and-butter neoclassical repertoire. They handle the physical and psychological stresses with aplomb, and their technical prowess and artistic range never seem strained. Yet each of these dancers has developed a distinctive approach to maintaining her energy and each continues to mature as an artist. Here are some of the ways they meet their jobs’ ever-growing demands.

ASHLEY BOUDER
“Ashley has a no-fear factor to her dancing,” says NYCB’s Assistant to the Ballet Master in Chief Sean Lavery. That may be how it looks onstage, but offstage Bouder admits to feeling some anxiety.


“When I got promoted to principal, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh my god, now I can’t afford to have an off performance!’ People expect excellence.” To handle that pressure, Bouder says that she takes one day at a time. “If things don’t go well, it’s not the end of the world, just not what I wanted to happen.”


Bouder, 25, finds inspiration in watching other dancers. “I spend a lot of time watching old tapes of ballerinas and thinking about what I want to do in each moment.” She makes an effort to see dancers and companies outside of NYCB. “I keep my eyes open.” Her interest has led her to seek opportunities to perform classics with outside companies, including learning Giselle from legendary ballerina Carla Fracci and performing it at La Scala.


When the company is working, Bouder focuses on eating protein during the day and carbohydrates at night, which she says gives her plenty of stored energy to get through the following day. If she feels like she needs to boost her stamina, she works out on the elliptical machine at the gym. She stays conditioned during NYCB’s off weeks by working with the company’s director of physical therapy, Marika Molnar.


Darla Hoover, Bouder’s teacher when she was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, says that Bouder “always had a beautiful artistic soul and steely determination. She was someone you could push to her max and she wasn’t allergic to that.” Even today, Bouder doesn’t wait for corrections; she actively hunts down feedback. And not just from her director and ballet masters but from other dancers as well. She mentions fellow principal Jared Angle as someone whose opinion she trusts: “We’re always asking each other, ‘Did you see anything I should fix?’”

SARA MEARNS
A night off might seem like a rare chance to think about something besides ballet, but Sara Mearns, 22, often spends her downtime watching other dancers perform the roles that are in her repertoire. “I try to find my way of dancing through watching the ballerinas. I don’t want to be exactly like them—I don’t copy them. But I think that’s the best way to get inspiration: Watch someone who has the qualities to which you aspire.”


Mearns’ movement flows with romantic energy, but in rehearsal she sometimes reins that in. “Technically, I don’t like to over-rehearse before I do something. If you over-rehearse, you’re going to get bored with it. The main goal is what it’s going to look like onstage.” 


Like Bouder, Mearns gets a lot from videos of ballerinas from previous eras, especially Natalia Makarova. She also finds visualization useful for preparing for a big new role. She tries to “envision what it’s going to feel like, which helps me get into the role.”


Mearns sometimes goes to the gym to build extra strength and stamina, and makes sure she drinks enough water to stay hydrated. During a full-length role like Swan Lake, she may drink a few sips of Coke at intermission to keep her energy up for the next act.


She admits that she felt extra pressure once she was promoted to principal. “You feel like you have to go out there and deliver. But if you dance like you did before you were promoted, well, they know what you’re going to be like onstage because that’s why they promoted you. I don’t think about the expectations. I want to keep the fun.”

STERLING HYLTIN

Sterling Hyltin, 23, looks like a Celtic princess with her wavy blonde hair and coltish long lines. As Juliet in Peter Martins’ new production of the ballet, she seemed to throw herself into the music as much as into Romeo’s arms, instinctively knowing the richness in the Prokofiev score. For Hyltin, every role, dramatic or otherwise, is born when she works alone in the studio. “That’s where I can find what works, when I can experiment.” Lavery says, “Sterling likes to really dissect the part. You can see from day to day she’s really thought about it.”


Hyltin also uses time in the studio by herself to keep in shape during breaks: “If there’s a period when I’m not dancing a lot, I’ll take a piece of repertoire that had me in great shape and just run it to keep me going physically and artistically.”


When her schedule is especially grueling, she relies on mental rehearsal. “Sometimes you have to save your body,” Hyltin says, “so I take time to prep mentally.”


She does Pilates three times a week. “I swear by it. It gives me extra core strength and helps me pull up out of my shoes.” She also watches her diet carefully. “I try to eat red meat three times a week. It gives me a lot of energy. I try to eat well-balanced meals, and I avoid sugar. I also avoid too much caffeine before a performance. If I have anything it will be a decaf coffee.”


As for how she deals with the pressure of being an NYCB principal, Hyltin says, “During a break sometimes, I step outside to get a breath of fresh air. It’s important to have a life!”

All three dancers have a passion for continuing to improve from one season to the next. Their hard work, careful rehearsing and healthy routines exist to support that greater goal. As Bouder says, “The things you look to improve get smaller and smaller, but they still matter and they’re still there.”

Former dancer Leda Meredith is an active choreographer and a professor at Adelphi University.

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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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