Susan Bryant teaching class at Houston Ballet's summer intensive. Cameron Durham, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Auditioning Injured: How to Navigate Summer Study Auditions When You're On the Mend

This story originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Pointe.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Corey Bourbonniere got a late start in ballet, so he knew he needed to commit himself completely to the art to catch up. But at 16, when a neglected hamstring injury progressed into a hip injury just in time for summer intensive auditions, it felt as though the dream might pass him by.


It seems completely unfair. An injury sustained in January can prevent your acceptance into a program that doesn't start until June. Often it feels like the stakes couldn't be higher: There are only a few summers in your life as a ballet student and missing one can seem catastrophic for your future. But an injury during audition season doesn't mean you'll necessarily spend the summer sitting around. You may need to adjust your expectations, but there are ways to navigate the audition process to ensure that you still get the most out of your training this summer.

Speak Up

Boston Ballet's summer intensive

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet

If you are injured when a can't-miss audition comes to town, it may still be worthwhile to take the class, but you have to speak up. Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School, says that if she has a student who is nursing an injury, like shin splints, but can take partial class, she would still encourage them to do the audition. "But only once they have spoken to the adjudicators and they've cleared it with them," she adds. Bourbonniere did just that when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's intensive audition came late in the cycle. He still felt a little unstable on his standing leg and his turnout was weak, but he told the teacher at the audition and was told to give it a try anyway. In this instance Tracey would make a note on the student's registration form and be able to frame her evaluation of that student with the knowledge of their limitations.

Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power notes that often the adjudicator will be the same person taking your registration, but in some cases they won't be. Politely ask the person at registration whom you should speak to about your injury. The registrar might say she'll let the teacher know. "But if that were me, I would probably do another little follow-up with the teacher before class," says Power. Be clear about your limitations whether that means that you need to skip jumps or pointework, or if, like Bourbonniere, you simply want them to be aware that you can dance the whole class but won't be at 100 percent. "You may get different reactions, but you should never read into it," Power adds. Audition tours require the adjudicators to travel a lot and work odd hours. The teacher's plane may have been late or they may have had to skip lunch, but a terse response likely has nothing to do with your approaching them.

Power points out that a good benchmark for whether or not the adjudicator needs to be informed of your injury is by asking yourself if you can do what will be expected of you in the audition. If the answer is no, for any reason—a turned ankle, an infected ingrown toenail, the flu—you should speak up.
Admitting that you are injured does not mean that you won't be accepted to the program. At Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, director Dennis Marshall has had students go through the audition process with an injury, and he always respects them for telling him. "If I see the facility I can look beyond the fact that they can't do the whole audition," he says. "Barre says it all to me."

Find a Solution 

Be realistic about your limitations. You certainly don't want to blow an opportunity to impress the faculty at your dream school because you weren't fit to be in the audition, or worse, injure yourself further in the process. For instance, Bourbonniere had to pass up auditions for Boston Ballet, Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives before he felt ready. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to make sure you're not underestimating the severity of your injury.

Tracey advises her students to do their homework and figure out which programs have alternative admissions processes, such as submitting photographs and a recommendation. "Remember that there are fine training schools out there that don't require a formal audition," she says. "Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is a phenomenal summer program, and you don't have to attend an audition to be admitted."
Auditioning with a video can be another option. Tracey points out that many schools accept video submissions as late as March if there are still places available in the program. A video may also provide the follow-up needed if you weren't able to participate in the audition fully, such as not dancing on pointe. Power says that you can bring the video, along with a doctor's note, with you to the audition if you already have one, or mail it a few weeks later when you're healed up. Be sure to include a professionally worded letter thanking them for taking the time to review it and clearly state when and where you auditioned.

Don't be afraid to call the program and ask how they would recommend you handle the situation. "Sometimes a school may be able to see that student in one of their regularly scheduled classes," says Tracey. "Seek an alternative and then accept the answer if it's no."

Focus on the Future

Houston Ballet Academy Summer Intensive boys class

Cameron Durham, Courtesy Houston Ballet

While audition season can feel like the most crucial do or die scenario, ignoring an injury is more likely to end your dancing life than missing one summer at your dream program. "If you're injured, deal with the injury," says Marshall, "because it's not about the next nine months. It's about the next nine years." Proceed with your audition process in a way that honors your body and the injury you have sustained.

Ask yourself honestly: Will you be recovered in time to attend the program and get the most out of it? Being at a summer intensive when you aren't able to perform at your best can be a deflating experience. Power has seen students with injuries come through Houston's program and struggle in such a competitive environment. "They are spending more time outside of the classroom and they can't do what is expected of them," she says. "Psychologically, they really can't manage."

If you'll still be recovering in the summer months, Power advises that your home studio may be the safest place to finish that process. "We get students from all over and we don't know them, so we don't know how much to push them," she says. Your teachers at home will be able to challenge you with a realistic understanding of what you're limitations are.

Dealing with an injury during the summer intensive audition season may be one of the greatest lessons you can learn; you'll likely confront injury in your professional career. But it's important to keep in mind that "one audition season is not going to make or break your future," says Tracey. Case in point: Bourbonniere was accepted to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's summer intensive on full scholarship, followed by an invitation to join the year-round program, and eventually the company.

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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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