Chun Wai Chan

Taylor-Ferne Morris, Courtesy of Chun Wai Chan

Chun Wai Chan Gets Candid About His Recent Career Move to New York City Ballet

In October, New York City Ballet announced that former Houston Ballet principal Chun Wai Chan would be joining the company as a soloist for the 2021–22 season. Born and trained in Guangzhou, China, Chan moved to the U.S. to join Houston Ballet II in 2010, joining the main company's corps de ballet in 2012. With his princely good looks, polished technique and striking confidence, Chan became a Houston favorite and was named one of Dance Magazine's 2017 "25 to Watch." Recently, he spoke with Pointe about his upcoming move to New York, embracing the challenge of a new style, and his Balanchine bucket list.

First off, congratulations on the New York City Ballet job. Of course, we will miss you in Houston. How are you? Where are you?

Mentally, I am so happy. I am back in Guangdong with my family, and it's so wonderful to be here with them. I am doing great.

How are you keeping in shape?

I have been lucky to be invited to be part of a TV show here. It's called Dance Smash and it's definitely keeping me in shape. I am dancing with Yuan Yuan Tan from San Francisco Ballet. It's pretty intense and includes all types of dance, like folk, ballroom and hip hop. It's a good opportunity to educate people here about ballet.

Was NYCB your dream company?

I am still so overwhelmed. But, actually, The Royal Ballet was my dream company. After competing at the Prix de Lausanne, I was offered a scholarship to go to the School of American Ballet summer intensive and Houston Ballet, and I decided to come to Houston.

Chun Wai Chan, wearing tan booty shorts and near a wooded creek, piques on his left foot and stretches his right leg in degag\u00e9 \u00e0 la second. He lifts his right arm up and tosses a gauzy white shirt.

Courtesy of Chun Wai Chan

So you have a redo on that fork in your ballet road. But let's talk Balanchine, because there's a lot of that in your future.

Definitely, there will be catching up. I know I have a lot to learn. But I am excited for the challenge to learn a new style, and I will adapt quickly. I like how they play with musicality, and the speed and the jumping. I cannot wait to move with them.

Also, every time there was a Balanchine ballet in Houston, I danced it: Serenade, Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments and then "Diamonds," when I was in HB II.

Which Balanchine ballet tops your bucket list?

I hope to someday dance Apollo. It's so elegant, with such amazing music. There is no other ballet like it.

How did you connect with the company?

I met Justin Peck when he came to set a work on Houston Ballet. Justin recommended me to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. After they saw my video, they invited me to take class for three days in January. During that time I learned a lot, talking to dancers and staff and reading the history. It's such a big company with a long history.

After three weeks, I got a soloist offer and took a week to consider my options. I knew Balanchine would be a new style for me. I am willing to try to learn. Also, I will be the only man from mainland China in the company—it's huge to say that a Chinese dancer could dance Balanchine and join New York City Ballet.

That's very interesting about the Peck connection. I loved your dancing in his Year of the Rabbit and Reflections at Houston Ballet.

His work feels so new and playful, and he has such a clear style. And I appreciate how he creates on the dancers. For the world premiere Reflections, I felt like it was Chun Wai Chan + Justin Peck. I could express the way I wanted to, and every show was different.

There's probably more Peck in your future, along with many other new choreographers. Have you been tuning in to NYCB's New Works Festival?

Yes, I have. I loved Andrea Miller's new song, the way it was filmed—so smooth. I have never seen that kind of dance film. And the dancing in the fountain was so fresh.

How did your time at Houston Ballet prepare you for this move?

I cannot imagine where I would be without Houston Ballet. It was a perfect company for me. I learned how to be a good dancer and to dance any kind of movement. That's why I am not afraid to leave. But it really started with Claudio Muñoz while I was in HB II. He taught me to act and partner in a way that was so real. It was endless learning. No other company could have done so much.

You had such a stellar run in Houston. Do you have any highlights of your time here?

Yes, so many. But the first big moment was when I almost quit to go to the University of Arizona during my first year with the company, after an injury. I was ready to go and had received a full scholarship. It was my director, Stanton Welch, who convinced me to stay and learn how to train hard and smart. He taught me that we have to take the responsibility to be healthy. I remember seeing my name on the fifth cast to learn Romeo and I was so happy, so after a night of thinking, I realized that I want to dance. Stanton brought me back from almost quitting. He saw something in me that nobody could see, including myself. I got promoted very quickly after that.

Wearing tan booty shorts, Chun Wai Chan jumps into a saut\u00e9 with his left leg in pass\u00e9, extending his right arm out to the side.

Taylor-Ferne Morris, Courtesy of Chun Wai Chan

What does your family think about the move? And are you ready for New York City?

My family is completely supportive. They want me to continue to grow from new challenges. As for New York City, I am from China. I am used to huge cities, with big buildings and tons of people. In fact, Hong Kong is just like New York City. I fell in love with the city when I was there. I won't have any problems adapting to it.

What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?

To be patient and positive, and if a door closes a window might open. Always seek opportunities for learning and growing. We don't have to stop.

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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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