David Kornfield, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada

This Former Ballerina Is Now One of the Ballet World's Sought-After Conductors

I first saw Maria Seletskaya when she was dancing as a leading soloist in Europe. Years later, she sent me a video of herself with the Stuttgart Ballet—not as a dancer, but as a guest orchestra conductor! I found her work and this particular transition very exciting and so I brought it to the attention of David Briskin, musical director of the National Ballet of Canada (where I dance), to see what he would think.

Being a ballerina is certainly challenging on its own. But as Seletskaya negotiated a career transition that felt right for her, she opted to pursue another, equally demanding passion: music.

As of this year (and after a few preliminary performances with the company in 2019), the National Ballet of Canada has hired Seletskaya as its first conductor in residence. "Maria's experience as an international soloist combined with her ongoing training as a conductor has prepared her well," says Briskin. "She brings a unique perspective to conducting for dance."

Naturally, I wanted to catch up with Seletskaya to hear about her fascinating journey so far.

Maria Seletskaya wearing a pink tutu performing an arabesque balance on pointe

Maria Seletskaya during her ballet days

Maria-Helena Buckley, Courtesy Seletskaya

Tell me more about going from the barre to the pit.

Music has been my companion since I can remember. Like most of the kids born in the Soviet Union, I started attending children's music school, and studied piano. I participated in several competitions and festivals, and according to the teacher, had a significant talent. But life thought it would be a great idea to make me a dancer and took me the ballet school instead.

Throughout the years of ballet training, I continued to improve my piano skills, but did not consider music ever becoming prominent in my life.

During my first season in a ballet company, I started having more free time on my hands, and piano came back to my life in its full glory. I would stay in the opera house until midnight, practicing. Then, one day, I spoke with one of the violinists and said: "I would give two years of my life to conduct Nutcracker just one time. I cannot play in the orchestra, but I would love to know how it feels to make this wonderful music together." The violinist looked at me simply and said: "Why don't you just become a ballet conductor?"

And so it started. It took years for me to really understand that this is what I wanted to do; then it took more years to figure out how to combine my studies with a ballet career, and some more years to actually do the studies. And here I am now!

How many different directors did you dance for?

I worked in four ballet companies under six directors. All of them in one or another way contributed to my development, but the director I absolutely loved working for was my first director at the Royal Ballet of Flanders, Kathryn Bennetts. Professional of highest caliber, in good way obsessed with her mission. She was always there, ready, leading and inspiring us.

When asked once about how an orchestra treats you as a female conductor, you replied, "I am not simply a woman, but I am a ballerina." What did you mean by that?

(Smiles.) Oh, I remember! Back then, I was voicing my concern about not only being a woman in a (still) male-dominated profession, but also being a dancer! How often I feared that there would be a person in the orchestra, who could say, "But the king is naked!" Now I am starting to feel a little bit more confident, but the awareness will remain there forever as a vaccine against becoming arrogant. (Laughs.)

To be honest, I only see advantages of my ballet past: I have a particular niche in conducting, where I can fit well; I have quite a good working discipline and ethic; I have ambition and am good at taking criticism. While considered a norm in ballet world, these traits are perceived as something outstanding in other professions.

Do you feel significant differences when working with musicians compared to dancers?

Yes, absolutely! As a dancer, you are never alone: You take daily class together, you spend rehearsals either with colleagues or with a coach and a pianist. Dancers are often hanging out together; company becomes their second family.

As a conductor, you spend a ton of time alone—score study and preparation require silence and concentration. Then during rehearsals with both dancers and orchestra you feel a weird mix of being both connected and distanced.

Probably a good moment to socialize is after the show, but I am often missing the opportunity—I am running home with or to my 6-year-old son. I shall catch up in the future, I promise.

Maria Seletskaya sits in the studio with her son, each of them with a violin behind their backs

Seletskaya with her son Benjamin

Nicha Rodboon, Courtesy Seletskaya

What is the preparation like for a dancer versus as a conductor?

The two processes are so different, that I would rather point at what there is in common: Before the start you have to "warm up" your soul.

Conducting of course has much less impact on the body, than ballet. However the concentration of a conductor during a show or a run-through is immense: One doesn't relax even for a second. After a three-act ballet one's head gets very heavy. (Smiles.)

You said that a certain ballet director once may have had difficulty with you being too inquisitive or forming your own opinions or giving piano lessons to other dancers. Do you have advice for young professionals who may be feeling misunderstood or ostracized?

You know, in the end, when you go home after a long day and go to bed, you remain one to one with yourself, with your thoughts, doubts and desires. In the end, no one's opinion matters, as long as you are being truthful with yourself. Follow your heart and trust it blindly, because deep inside it always knows what's really yours.

Are there some good examples of working relations between dancers and conductors that you have seen?

I have always felt that the conductors who felt for dancers, recognized their hard labor and did not necessarily impose their musical vision were the best to work with. Dancers are incredible masters of their bodies: They can move at any speed and do that with the most glamorous smile. It is very rare that they need to be "pushed." Help them to phrase and play with choreographic text, to do their best on stage, and you will be rewarded with a wonderful collaboration!

Do you ever compose or choreograph?

I have a bachelor's degree in choreography, but I have no urge to compose or choreograph. I am not daring enough and believe that I haven't anything to say what hasn't been said before. I am an executor, not a creator type.

What has your time in Toronto been like? 

Being new in the company, I felt both cautious interest and pressure and had to work every day to gain trust.

The last ballets I have conducted in Toronto were Balanchine's Chaconne, Kylian's Petite Mort and Lander's Etudes. In the spring I will return for some big classics. There were several big dramatic ballets which I dreamed of dancing but never had a chance to do. I hope I will conduct them all one day.

If you weren't a conductor, what else might strike your fancy as a career?

Since my childhood I am fascinated by space. My dream was to become an astronaut and fly to the ISS. I would become either that or a pilot!

Does your son learn dance and music as well? 

Benjamin expresses zero interest in ballet! (Laughs.) He speaks three languages though.

When he was 4, he asked to get him "a small violin from the shop because mama's violin is too big for me." According to his teacher, he has some talent and natural musicality. Even though it is not clear, whether or not he will become a musician, violin lessons and practice are a part of our everyday schedule, be it at home or abroad. Just in case.

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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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