Abbey Marrison (far left) performing in Lauren Lovette's Le Jeune in American Ballet Theatre's fall gala (Marty Sohl, courtesy ABT)

What It's Like to Be an Apprentice with American Ballet Theatre

So many ballet greats start out as apprentices before joining the main company's corps de ballet. But what do the ins and outs of an apprenticeship actually look like? We had American Ballet Theatre apprentice Abbey Marrison keep a diary last fall during the week of the company's gala performance. In the gala, Marrison performed in Lauren Lovette's Le Jeune. A Markham, ON, Canada native, Marrison began her ballet training at Karpov Ballet Academy, and later placed as a finalist at the 2016 Youth America Grand Prix. She began training at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2016, joined the ABT Studio Company a year later, and was made an apprentice in 2018. Here's what her job is like. —Courtney Bowers


Monday, October 15

Marrison (far left) in the studio for a Le Jeune rehearsal (courtesy American Ballet Theatre)

The week of the ABT Fall Gala has arrived! The other dancers and I are so excited to perform Lauren Lovette's Le Jeune at the David H. Koch Theater. Today, I started off with a breakfast of yogurt and granola, then headed to 890 Broadway for 9 am strengthening class with company dancer Roman Zhurbin, followed by women's class and then a lunch break.

After a quick lunch, the apprentices had rehearsal with Sean Stewart, a recently retired dancer with ABT. He's been teaching us lots of the corps de ballet roles we'll need to know for the upcoming season—like peasants from Swan Lake and pirates from Le Corsaire—and sharing his wisdom with us.

Next, we had a rehearsal with the ABT Studio Company for Le Jeune, the piece we'll be performing in the gala. This piece was created last year by New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette and is part of this year's ABT Women's Movement series. After reviewing the corrections that Lauren gave us last week, we finished off the day with a Pilates session.

Then we all raced over to the west side of the city to catch a live orchestra rehearsal of Le Jeune. On Wednesday night, we'll be performing this piece with a live orchestra for the very first time! It was super-exciting for us to hear how our music will sound during the gala. Our anticipation is building as the performance night gets closer, and I'm so thrilled to represent the energy and intricacy behind Lauren's choreography on the Koch stage.

Tuesday, October 16

Marrison (center) and fellow apprentices in rehearsal for the "La Bayadère" Shades trio with Sean Stewart

One more sleep until the big night! We started today off with a combined class taught by ABT ballet mistress Nancy Raffa, followed by a pointe class. After lunch, I had one last in-studio rehearsal for Le Jeune before the piece is taken to the Koch Theater. We practiced the piece while listening to a recording of the live orchestra from last night. Dancing to live music is something we need to adapt to because we're so used to the CD recording. Dancing alongside an orchestra adds an exhilarating and magical element to the performance, and we want to be as prepared as possible. Next, the apprentice ladies rehearsed the Shades trio from La Bayadère with Sean for a performance next month.

After a long day of rehearsals, I met my parents for dinner. They've flown in from Toronto to see the gala performance, and it was so good to see them. We ate at an Italian restaurant before I crashed early to get a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, October 17

A pre-performance huddle the night of the gala (courtesy American Ballet Theatre)

My fellow apprentice roommates and I woke up early on this crisp, sunny morning and headed to 890 to take class with ABT ballet master Carlos Lopez. After class, we went back uptown for a spacing and dress rehearsal of Le Jeune on the Koch stage at Lincoln Center. The dimensions of the Koch stage are a lot larger than we're accustomed to, so we have to dance bigger and travel more than we have before. The excitement is palpable when standing on that beautiful stage and everyone can feel the energy.

I had a break after the dress rehearsal, so I took that time to fuel up and calm my nerves before the big performance. I got to the theater to do my hair and makeup, and then took a short class to get my body warm and aligned. The Koch Theater can seat almost 3,000 people, which can feel overwhelming. To fight the nerves, I remember to take deep breaths and stay grounded in my body.

We've rehearsed this piece for countless hours, so during the performance, I let my muscles take over and I focus on channeling the magical feeling of dancing in such a prestigious venue. Performing Lauren's piece was surreal, and I'm so thankful that we had so much support and encouragement from the company. What an incredible experience!

Thursday, October 18

In the studio with Jacob Clerico (courtesy American Ballet Theatre)

I woke up Thursday morning a little more tired than usual, but still glowing from last night's show. Thursday went as Thursdays usually do: 10 am class, pas de deux, rehearsal. I'm looking forward to attending ABT's performances for the rest of this fall season, as the programs are filled with amazing ballets like Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room, Wayne McGregor's AfteRite, George Balanchine's Symphonie Concertante, Alexei Ratmansky's Songs of Bukovina, and so many more.

I love being inspired by this versatile company. After such an exhilarating and eventful week, I think I'll go to my favorite Thai restaurant in Nolita called Uncle Boons to celebrate—and then use the weekend to rest and recover.

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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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