Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Windy City Wonder: The Joffrey Ballet's Prodigious Amanda Assucena

This is Pointe's August/September 2017 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

With her sunny spirit and unaffected charm, Joffrey Ballet dancer Amanda Assucena is often cast as innocent characters like Marie or the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. But in Yuri Possokhov's The Miraculous Mandarin, a tabloid-like tale of corruption and cruelty, she played a chillingly manipulative seductress who lures men into the clutches of three street thugs. Dressed in leather shorts, a bra and corset, she was largely without mercy. And from the moment she emerged from the glass box that was her prison-like home—moving with angular, acrobatic choreography that seemed to turn her legs into daggers—it was clear she had nailed this enigmatic siren, even suggesting a hint of vulnerability and loneliness.

The 40-minute marathon of a work not only served as a showcase for Assucena's superb technique, but also revealed her impressive dramatic skills. "Amanda has a natural instinct for music and theater, and a dramatic sense that can convey any story," says Joffrey's artistic director Ashley Wheater. "She has shown herself to be remarkably mature as a person and an artist, and she's fearless in taking on demanding roles and technical challenges."

Add to this the fact that Assucena has a beautifully proportioned body and an innate musicality and it's easy to understand why the 23-year-old has enjoyed such a rapid-fire rise at the Joffrey.


A Big Move

Naturally confident, yet completely modest, Assucena developed an early passion for the stage while growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her parents (her father is an engineer and her mother is an architect who shifted to the business side of the profession) began taking her to opera and symphony concerts as young as 3 years old. "Classical music has always been one of the main reasons I love to dance," she says.

Assucena, who has an older brother and a younger sister, took gymnastics classes as a child, but by 8 she had switched to ballet. She studied first at the Centro de Dança Rio and then, at age 12, entered the official school of Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro. When she was 10, her teacher Hortencia Mollo suggested she audition for the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. It was an appealing idea. "I'd always felt like I'd been born in the wrong country," Assucena confesses with a laugh. "In Brazil there's not as much support of the arts." They started working towards this goal, but Mollo passed away when Assucena was 11. Another teacher, Silvana Andrade, worked with her instead and helped her make an audition tape.


A promising student: Assucena and Cavan Conely performing "Le Corsaire" at the Harid Conservatory. Photo by Alex Srb, Courtesy Harid.


By the time she sent in her video at age 14, Assucena had already participated in many ballet competitions in Brazil. Harid accepted her, and the native Portuguese speaker took a month of private classes in English before she left home. She admits it was "a little rough" when she first got to the U.S. "But after a month or so I was pretty fluent in the language." (Her impeccable English bears not the slightest trace of an accent.)

Although she was thousands of miles from home, Assucena adapted very quickly to living in Harid's dorm and being surrounded by other dancers. "After a pretty strict upbringing in Brazil, I really enjoyed having my freedom," she says. "And I knew what I was doing there, because everyone's goal at Harid is to become a professional dancer."

As she neared high school graduation, she auditioned for the Joffrey Academy of Dance Trainee Program and was offered a spot. "My training was in the very structured Vaganova technique," says Assucena. "But when I took a class for the Joffrey's program I really enjoyed it, because in addition to all the artistry there was such a sense of free movement. I love having a strong basic technique, but experiencing the fluidity of movement allowed me to really enjoy my dancing."

Harid Conservatory director Gordon Wright agrees that the company was a good fit. As a student, "she was physically gifted, technically powerful for her age, and unusually versatile in her movement abilities," he says. "These attributes, which only became more impressive with time and training, made her, in my mind, the perfect Joffrey dancer."

A Swift Rise

Once Assucena was in Chicago, Wheater often came to watch school performances and class. "From the time she stepped into our Academy, we could all see her talent and potential," he says. After one year, he promoted her into the main company.

The first ballet she learned was Alexander Ekman's Episode 31, an absurdist performance-art piece. "It was a shock," she admits, "and I felt really overwhelmed." But as usual, she adjusted quickly. Before she knew it, she was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Robert Joffrey's Nutcracker, at the tender age of 19.


Assucena in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

But her real breakthrough came a few months later, with Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo and Juliet. Pastor had come to Chicago to watch company class and Nutcracker rehearsals before he cast the ballet. Assucena recalls: "One day my friend Fernando Duarte came over to me and said, 'It's up on the board. You are learning Juliet.' I couldn't believe it."

Her initial excitement turned to nerves once she had her first rehearsal. "I saw all these beautiful experienced dancers in the studio with me and thought, This is serious. I have to deliver," she says. "Being a first-year company member learning a principal role, I also had to learn how to shut out some negativity."

Juliet, which she reprised last season, now holds a special place in her heart, and she credits Pastor with "allowing you to be yourself, and to be free, so all the Juliets in the company are different."

Assucena has quickly stocked up an impressive repertoire. (She credits the fact that the company operates without the traditional ranking system as one reason why she's been able to move into challenging roles so quickly.) In 2016 she danced the title role in Sir Frederick Ashton's fiendishly difficult Cinderella ("I really enjoyed the challenge," she says), and she was first cast as Marie in Christopher Wheeldon's world premiere production of The Nutcracker last winter.


Assucena as Marie in Christopher Wheeldon's "The Nutcracker." Photo by Cheryl Mann,Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

She's increasingly comfortable with modern movement, too, and says her role as the "crying girl" in Wayne McGregor's Infra is now one of her favorites. She also admires choreographers John Neumeier (who staged Sylvia for the Joffrey) and Justin Peck, who set his Year of the Rabbit on the company last February.

A self-described homebody, Assucena relaxes by curling up with her cat and listening to every kind of music. As for hobbies? "I'm glad I'm good at dancing because I'm not good at much of anything else," she jokes. She need not worry. In addition to rehearsals for Neumeier's Orphée et Eurydice (a Joffrey and Lyric Opera of Chicago collaboration to debut in September), the company is planning a production of Giselle for October. No word about casting yet, but Assucena describes it as her "dream role."

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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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