Francesca Hayward (in white) in Cats. Courtesy Universal Pictures.

Behind the Scenes of Cats: Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae and Robbie Fairchild Take Us Inside the Major Motion Picture

"I don't care how much you love it," Robbie Fairchild groans theatrically. "Who wants to take ballet at 6:30 in the morning?"

But for a span of roughly four months, that was part of the daily routine for the dancers appearing in Cats, Tom Hooper's new film adaptation of the iconic Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which opens in theaters December 20. The cast boasts A-list talent pulled from the worlds of acting (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellan), music (Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift) and dance—most prominently, Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward, who makes her big-screen debut as Victoria, one of the film's leading roles. Because she was expected to get right back into company rehearsals as soon as filming concluded, there was a ballet teacher and an accompanist on set every morning so Hayward, and castmates such as Fairchild (who plays Munkustrap) and Royal Ballet principal Steven McRae (who plays Skimbleshanks), could warm up and stay in shape. With 12-hour shoot days, 6:30 am was frequently the only time available for class.



Filming began in December 2018 and continued into the spring. "We had two or three months of rehearsal before we even started filming—singing classes and rehearsals, and we'd piece through scene-by-scene with the director and Andy," Hayward says. The "Andy" in question, of course, is none other than choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who also tackled the musical's 2016 Broadway revival. (He became involved with the film after Wayne McGregor, who had initially been tapped to choreograph, withdrew from the production.)

Actors on a movie set. Two men holding large cameras are filming.

Steven McRae, wearing a motion-capture suit, on the set of Cats.

Giles Keyte, Courtesy Universal Pictures

Cats was the first time any of the three had worked with the Tony Award–winning choreographer. "The first thing that struck me was his highly contagious energy and passion," says McRae, who's also a trained tap dancer. "He's very capable of amalgamating multiple dance styles." So McRae laced up his tap shoes, Fairchild brought the jazz-inflected technique he honed as a New York City Ballet principal, and Hayward, naturally, applied her classical chops to the balletic Victoria.

Francesca Hayward in a white cat costume leaps across a wooden floor. She's surrounded my a number of cats.

Francesca Hayward as Victoria

Courtesy Universal Pictures

"I was involved in every single scene," Hayward says, "so there wasn't much rest for me." On an average day, she might leave her apartment at 4:45 am to arrive at the set, take her 6:30 am technique class, and spend 45 minutes to an hour in hair and makeup. After, she would get into her motion-capture suit, needed for adding computer-generated cat fur during postproduction. ("They felt like second skins," Fairchild says. "The only time it would feel weird was when your battery pack would get overheated, and you'd think, Oh, I hope this thing doesn't explode.") Then, vocal warm-ups—the cast sang live on camera—before finally setting up for the first take of the day between 9 and 10 am. From there, filming might go for 12 hours, only for the cast to head home, sleep and get up before dawn the next morning to do it all again.

In a black leotard and long black skirt, pointe shoes and striped legwarmers, Francesca Haywards leans forward in a back tendu.

Francesca Hayward in rehearsal for Giselle at The Royal Ballet

Helen Maybanks, Courtesy ROH

"The biggest challenge was to tap and sing at the same time for hours on set," says McRae. "I'd never sung before. My vocal coach literally had to teach me how to speak without an Australian accent before we could even begin singing!"

Francesca Hayward in a white cat costume sits at a giant, ornate table holding a huge fork and knife.

Francesca Hayward as Victoria in Cats

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Singing while dancing was old hat for Fairchild, who garnered a Tony nomination for An American in Paris while still at NYCB. (He's been branching into film work since leaving the company.) Hayward had far less experience with singing, but in the film she performs "Beautiful Ghosts," a brand-new song penned by Webber and Taylor Swift. The filming process itself was also quite new for her. "When you run a new ballet continuously from start to finish," she says, "it really helps you make sense of your story and your character. But when you're filming, you are doing it out of order; you might have filmed the scene after this one two months ago. So you have to think about your part in a different way. You have to know it so well before you start, so that it all makes sense when it comes together at the end."Luckily, the dancers had plenty of time to perfect their performances. "The joy of film is that you can reshoot something multiple times," McRae says. That repetition could take its toll, however, so they learned quickly to take advantage when they did get breaks on set and rest their bodies.

That inevitable downtime also meant they had plenty of opportunities to rub elbows with their celebrity co-stars. Between takes, film and theater veteran Judi Dench was known to come up with games to help pass the time. (She and Fairchild, whose characters are quite close in the movie, played a lot of Bananagrams.) Rebel Wilson and James Corden kept their castmates laughing. "Everyone was a gem," Fairchild says. "No egos. No divas." And while the star-studded cast will be a big part of what gets audiences to theaters, Fairchild is optimistic that they've made a version of the musical that, while dance-heavy, can appeal to anyone.

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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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