How American Ballet Theatre Principal Christine Shevchenko Preps for Her NYC Debut of "Swan Lake"

In the middle of American Ballet Theatre's spring season, principal dancer Christine Shevchenko takes a break from her comedic role of Pierrette in Harlequinade to (briefly) transform into a swan. During the half hour rehearsal, Shevchenko seamlessly transitions from Odette to Odile, running through her various solos without pause—save for the short conferences with ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, which switch between Russian and English almost as quickly as Shevchenko whips out her fouetté turns (but more on those later).

"The rehearsal process is a lot different right now because every week it's a new ballet," Shevchenko says during a rehearsal break last week. "I'm really trying to squeeze in as many Swan Lake rehearsals as I can, and at the same time, I'm trying to prepare for Don Quixote, which is the week after," she explains of juggling the season's eight programs. "This is my first year as a principal during the Met season, so I'm learning how to figure it out as we keep going. In a way, I'm used to doing parts last minute because that's how I got most of my roles," she says. Ahead, Shevchenko shares exactly how she's gearing up for her Met debut on June 20.



On learning the role for the first time

"I began learning Swan Lake when I was in school, and I learned Odile first. For Odette, you need to be more artistically mature, and so when I was younger, I never really felt ready for the White Swan.

With the company, about two years ago, I did the White Swan pas for a performance. Then last year they told me I'd do the full-length ballet. I premiered it in Singapore in March, and then I knew I'd be doing it this season in New York.

Kevin McKenzie's version of the ballet is very well paced. Yes, there is a lot of dancing and it's really hard, but the way it's spread out, you can sort of get yourself together before the next thing. I actually thought it would be so much harder than it was for my premiere, and I was happy that it was pretty manageable. It's exhausting because of how much more you're using your body and your arms—it breaks your breath, so it's harder to breathe with all of the bending—but once you get used to that, it's okay."

On mastering the dual role

"For me, White Swan is much calmer. I love Odette because I just love adagio. I feel better in it because it's slow and you can really try to control every step you take. White Swan is more humble and pure, and everything is delicate and clean and precise.

Black Swan is more vivacious and powerful, so I kind of just bust it out and show a lot of confidence. As long as you appear confident and in control of the whole stage, it works really well. We also have a great acting coach who helps us, Byam Stevens. He'll work with us one-on-one—explaining the role to us, and how to make it work so the audience understands what we're trying to say and understands the story."


On her unique take on Odile's fouettés

"I saw an old video when I was little of a ballerina doing the à la seconde combination in one of the Russian companies. I saved that in my head for if I ever did Black Swan even as a student, I tried it that way. I thought it was so cool and different, and I'm always searching for new and unique things to bring to each role, so it's fun for me."

On dealing with nerves

"I feel like we all still get nervous because you always want to do your best and look good. The day of a performance, I usually get there early and do makeup and hair before class. I like to stretch a lot before my show, so after class, I listen to upbeat music to get my energy up. Right now, on Spotify, I've been listening to oldies classics, and then sometimes I just put top hits on. Before I go onstage, I'm usually trying out some steps backstage or going over the character in my head—I like it to be quiet and I like to be in my own bubble so I can focus on what I have to do. There's always a little bit of nerves beforehand, but I feel like once I get out there and start dancing, it all goes away."

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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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