Boylston, Seo and Lane in costume for ABT's new production of The Sleeping Beauty."Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

ABT's Homegrown Ballerinas: Isabella Boylston, Hee Seo and Sarah Lane

This is Pointe's June/July 2015 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Ascending the ranks to "ballerina" status at American Ballet Theatre comprises the stuff of dreams for many dancers. Since its inception in 2003, ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School has been steadily molding students who graduate into the company. But within the last two decades, only several women have successfully journeyed from the ABT Studio Company to star. Three ballerinas emblematic of that distinction take a particular pride in being homegrown: Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston and soloist Sarah Lane.


Along the way, they have reaped sublime rewards, peppered with self-doubt, will power, patience, corps de ballet fatigue and a firm focus on their goals. While ABT regularly imports international guest stars for its spring Met season—a source of frustration for some dancers—Seo, Boylston and Lane have carved out a place for themselves in the company and in the hearts of their audience.

Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's artist in residence, has championed their talents; all three will dance Aurora in his acclaimed new production of The Sleeping Beauty in June. And with the retirement this season of three ballerinas crucial to ABT's identity—Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes—these younger dancers now take center stage, becoming role models for the next generation.

Hee Seo

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Lauded for her grace, delicacy and willowy strength, South Korean–born Hee Seo joined the ABT Studio Company in 2004 after studying in Korea and at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. She became a company apprentice in 2005 and was granted a corps de ballet contract in 2006. While still in the corps, she was cast in several principal roles, including her dream role of Juliet.

"I take big-time pride in being an ABT dancer," says Seo. "I know what it's like in every rank, from apprentice to principal. It gives me a good idea of how to understand people, and I think that is what ballet is about—understanding a human's life."

At the start of her career, Seo says she made the mistake of "knowing exactly how I was going to dance a full-length ballet from the beginning." She found it tough to concede to her partners' wishes or ideas. "I'm a princess," she says with a giggle. But now she's learned to be flexible with other points of view. "It's teamwork," she says.

Seo, 28, didn't presume she would become a principal (although she had a burning desire) and admits she had doubts. "I didn't like something about myself. I think people are unhappy when there is a gap between what you think you are and what other people think you are."

"Try not to compare yourself to others.

If you have a great goal and work ethic,

you can get there in your own way."

With support from her family, artistic director Kevin McKenzie and coach Irina Kolpakova, Seo linked her soul to her roles. "I truly believe that you can't fake who you are, especially onstage," she says. "You have to grow as a person first. Then everything else comes along."

In 2012, McKenzie made her a principal, because, she says, "he saw that I was able to physically maintain those heavy roles and was mentally ready to push myself." Still, when the retirement of ABT's three senior ballerinas was announced, she initially felt scared. "I've only been a principal for two years. You always feel like there's someone you can learn from or look up to."

Seo prefers the mental and physical challenge of full-length ballets over repertory works. She cites Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty, with the choreographer's imperative to "bring back the grace and femininity" and his emphasis on clarity of mime, as a milestone in her career. The ballet that has been most challenging for her: Swan Lake with its pesky 32 fouettés. Still, she's had practice. Due to other dancers' injuries, she had to perform three Swan Lakes in one week.

Nonetheless, ballerina roles are usually rationed during the Met spring season to accommodate both the ABT principals and visiting artists. But Seo claims that she doesn't resent guest dancers because of the artistry and energy she gleans from them. And she's a guest artist in her own right: In April 2014, she danced Giselle with the Mariinsky Ballet.

Sarah Lane

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

As one of ABT's most radiant and expressive dancers, Sarah Lane was promoted to soloist in 2007, four years after her apprenticeship. Having proved herself in such diverse ballets as Theme and Variations and Sinatra Suite and in roles ranging from Aurora to Swanilda to Clara in The Nutcracker, she acknowledges the enigma of why she hasn't been promoted to principal. "I don't specifically say, 'Why don't you promote me?' " says Lane, 30. "In the end that's management's decision. If I'm not a humble dancer, I've lost everything that is special about being an artist and I can't be grounded enough to express what I want to in my dancing. That's the reason I'm not incredibly pushy."

Lane admits she "would die" to dance roles like Giselle or Juliet someday. "It's hard when someone from outside the company comes in and gets an opportunity. But I don't want to focus too much on that because it's not going to change anything."

"Work hard, but don't lose who you are.

Try to maintain balance in your life."

One obstacle Lane has mitigated is her approach to performance nerves. "I've always been very on edge before I go on stage," she says. Now she centers herself by focusing on why she dances. "It just comes down to loving what I do and having a lot of beautiful things in my life that I try to take with me on stage," says Lane, who has been married to former ABT corps dancer Luis Ribagorda for seven years. She now even makes light of it with her frequent partner Joseph Gorak. "Joey and I were laughing today because we're both so OCD—we're always analyzing things too much," she says with a chuckle.

Two seasons ago, Ratmansky created the role of Miranda in The Tempest for Lane, and she has danced a number of his ballets, including Seven Sonatas and The Bright Stream. "He's a really tough person to please," she says. "That's actually a positive thing because I always appreciate the challenge." Lane identifies with Aurora, a role she thinks has been career-shifting. "The qualities in her character that the fairies bring her are ones that I strive to have as a person every day—even though I fall short."

Lane says she has considered dancing with another company, "but for now ABT is my home." Because she never expected to be hired by ABT as a young dancer, she's happy that she's come so far. "The people that you grow up with and the people who support you are your family," she adds.

Among those are the three ballerinas retiring this season. "The saddest thing would be to see the legacy of those amazing principal dancers lost," says Lane. "I hold that as a responsibility to measure up to."

Isabella Boylston

Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

"I think there's a level of support you get from the company when you're a homegrown dancer," says Isabella Boylston, who in nine years zipped through the troupe's ranks from ABT Studio Company to principal dancer in 2014. "We're rooting for each other."

Boylston exhibits amplitude, femininity and a natural sense of command in her dancing, but she credits Kolpakova, Susan Jaffe and the late Georgina Parkinson for shepherding her into leading roles. Ratmansky cast Boylston, then in the corps, in her first full-length principal role in his Bright Stream. But living in the odd purgatory between soloist and principal proved trying. "I would be doing Odette/Odile and then have to dance big swans and the pas de trois the next day," she says.

Boylston felt a sense of responsibility towards preparing herself for principal status. "I definitely put in a lot of extra time on my own in the studio. At ABT you have to prophesy your own future. You have to show them you want it."

She has also had to be consistent when ballerina roles come once annually. "I would love to have three or four Swan Lakes, for example," she explains. "It's hard because the stakes are so high if you get that one show every year."

"Always approach your career with joy.

It should be about doing what you love."

Boylston thinks she made the biggest career impressions with her interpretations of Aurora, Odette/Odile and Giselle, with the latter carrying the most dramatic challenges. "You're putting yourself in a really vulnerable place when you're dong a mad scene in front of your peers," she says. She would love to dance Juliet, Manon and more Balanchine roles, and relishes working with new choreographers.

"One of the most rewarding experiences was probably Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions," says Boylston. "I felt that Chris recognized my individual qualities and highlighted them."

Savvy at self-promotion through social media and her website, Boylston has acquired numerous prestigious guesting engagements by herself. Last April, she danced Swan Lake with the National Ballet of China in Beijing. She has also performed Gamzatti in La Bayadère with the Mariinsky Ballet and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Balanchine version of The Nutcracker with the Royal Danish Ballet.

Now 28, Boylston says it seems strange not to be the baby ballerina anymore: "I grew up on Julie and Paloma. They were the reason I wanted to be in ABT. I think it'll be very emotional to see them go."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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