Cassandra Trenary photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Cassandra Trenary: Why the ABT Soloist Has Us Spellbound

This is Pointe's June/July 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

It seems that, in ballet careers, everything happens at once. For a few years, you notice a dancer and make a mental note: “She's got something." And then, before you know it, she's everywhere. And so it was last year for American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary, 22. In the blink of an eye she graduated from promising young dancer—I remember spotting her as she led the Shades in La Bayadère with unrelenting precision—to nascent star. She performed her first classical solo, in Raymonda Divertissements, in 2014. Then, in one year, she debuted the roles of Princess Florine and Diamond Fairy in Alexei Ratmansky's new The Sleeping Beauty, the youngest sister in Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, the sleep-dancing young woman in Le Spectre de la Rose and a lead role in Marcelo Gomes' new AfterEffect. Last August, she was promoted to soloist.

Physically, it was a challenging year. “I felt like crap!" the relaxed, forthright Trenary answered recently at a café near ABT's studios when asked what it felt like to learn so many roles in quick succession. “But I love to dance, and I just ran with it." Trenary—a petite brunette with big, lively eyes and strong features that read particularly well onstage—emanates energy and directness. No matter what role she dances, she's dynamic and strong, a force to be reckoned with.


Trenary as the Canary Fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.



“She's a real person and it's fun to be in the studio with her," says James Whiteside, a principal in the company who is also a close friend. “We work our butts off, but it never has that neurotic edge," he adds, with a laugh. That ability to maintain a level head has served her well in recent months as she prepared for her biggest assignment to date: the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. For the first time, she has to carry the whole show, in a purely classical idiom.

It has taken an adjustment. “I need to be bigger, and to make every step extremely important," she said after a rehearsal in February, before her April 2 debut in Detroit. (Her New York City debut will take place June 29.) Particularly in this production, which emphasizes delicate musicality over showy virtuosity, she has had to find a new lyricism, a way to make the steps sing, like notes in an aria.

In rehearsal, Trenary and Whiteside worked through “The Vision" scene, in which Prince Désiré imagines Aurora calling him to her bedside to free her from Carabosse's spell. Even after a long day of rehearsals, Trenary looked fresh and alert, unfazed by all the information coming her way. The moment the pianist placed his fingers on the keys, her body and face changed—she became someone else. Breathing into her port de bras, she gazed into her partner's eyes with a look full of curiosity and longing. How could a prince resist?

The ballet master, Keith Roberts, gave her tips on how to make her performance register even more. The unifying principle was: let go. “You have to forget how you ran with other women, and run by yourself. You can be you now," he said at one point. With each take, she seemed to expand and soften. Instead of overthinking technical details, she trusted the music and the feeling of the steps to carry her, relying less on the mirror and more on internal sensations. She also asked a lot of questions, rather than wait for suggestions.


Trenary in "Company B." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.


“She is an unusually self-possessed and focused artist who knows how to learn," says artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who offered her a spot as an apprentice in 2011, when she was 17 and still a student at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. (She skipped over the ABT Studio Company, the usual stepping stone for promising candidates.) She had come to the school from Georgia, where she grew up with a younger brother. Her father owned a used-car dealership; her mother worked in real estate and retail. Trenary got into dance early, at 3, and started taking class at the Lawrenceville School of Ballet. But her training was eclectic, and she wasn't a bunhead; she did ballet, jazz, tap, modern dance and hip hop, but also tried horseback riding and tae kwon do. In fact, before being spotted at ABT's summer intensive and invited to study at JKO (at 15), she had only been taking ballet three times a week.

At the school, then artistic director Franco De Vita and faculty member Raymond Lukens immediately sensed her potential. “From the moment we saw her, there was something special about her. She was luminous," says Lukens, who cast her in one of his own works. Because of her varied training, she was placed with dancers two years younger than her. It took her a year to catch up to the other students in her age group. Her confidence flagged—“I started comparing myself to other people, which is super-unhealthy," she says—but she had the benefit of having her family around her. Her parents had quit their jobs, sold everything and moved up to New York. Even the family dog made the trip. “They didn't want me to come alone," she says, “and they looked at it as an adventure." (After she joined the company, they moved back south, to Florida.)


Trenary in "La Bayadère." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.


Perhaps that's why family and friendships are so important to her. In 2014, after a difficult year in which she slowly recovered from one injury (a fractured metatarsal) only to be beset by another (a bulge in her cervical spine), she married fellow ABT dancer Gray Davis. Through the eight months of recovery, he encouraged her and helped buoy her spirits. “I had a lot of couch time," she says, and a lot of time to think. She took some acting classes, even joined the cast of a play and considered going back to school. Meanwhile, her desire to dance grew even stronger.

Both Trenary and her husband are regular churchgoers; the habit, she says, is “a reminder to love each other a little more." That love and the sense of groundedness it inspires may help to explain why she seems so comfortable in her own skin. She thrives on work with contemporary choreographers (like Gregory Dolbashian, Ratmansky and her fellow ABT colleague Gemma Bond). She has appeared with Daniil Simkin's pickup group INTENSIO. She even made a dance video, “Wallflower," with Whiteside, who moonlights as a pop/dance artist under the alter ego JbDubs. Watching that video, you would never guess that Trenary's day job is as a classical dancer. She looks unapologetic, strong and, in a word, sexy.

This year, in addition to The Sleeping Beauty, she'll be tackling the role of the doll-like bird in Ratmansky's The Golden Cockerel. In the future, who knows? It seems there's very little she can't do if she sets her mind to it. As she puts it: “I feel as though, more and more, every detail counts."

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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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