Nitting (in orange tights) in The Wizard of Oz, her first performance with Kansas City Ballet. Bruce Pruitt & East Market Studios, Courtesy KCB.

200 Auditions, 1 Contract: Courtney Nitting's Journey to Scoring Her First Professional Contract

Courtney Nitting started her first season with Kansas City Ballet last fall with the normal rituals of company life: headshots for the website, ordering her customized pointe shoes and claiming a spot at the barre. Each of these simple things was a "pinch me" moment she thought might never come.

"I still can't believe it," says Nitting. "I'm in a company for real."

It took Nitting, 21, more than three years of auditions to get a company contract. Her talent and passion brought her close to her dreams several times: Prestigious companies expressed interest but not job offers, and a year in a second company didn't produce a contract. Still, she never stopped trying, enduring about 200 auditions, with $9,000 in related expenses.


"Courtney is one of the hardest workers I've ever taught," says Nancy Bielski, a teacher at Steps on Broadway whom Nitting trained with. "She's had a lot of bad things happen with auditions. But she's resilient. She never gave up, ever."

A Few Close Calls

Nitting in The Four Temperaments at her School of American Ballet workshop performance

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy SAB

In the spring of 2015, Nitting was in Level D at the School of American Ballet, usually the final year of training for young women. She did several auditions and received interest from Royal Danish Ballet, but international contract technicalities prevented a formal job offer. SAB advised her to repeat a year in Level D. She wasn't thrilled but knew it was the best way to be ready for the next audition season.

Another year of polishing pushed her technique and got her noticed. The directors of Royal Danish Ballet, Miami City Ballet and Dresden Semperoper Ballett saw her in class at SAB. Royal Danish and Miami both invited her to take class with their companies (at her own expense, as is typical) to consider her for a possible corps contract. Meanwhile, Dresden Semperoper's director offered her an apprenticeship, but she had to decide before hearing from the other companies about a corps spot, so she turned him down. In the end, Royal Danish told her she wasn't a fit and Miami said the contract was no longer available.

But Nitting still had hope—she'd been cast in the lead role of Sanguinic in The Four Temperaments in SAB's workshop. Alastair Macaulay, the famously tough critic for The New York Times, raved about her, saying she was "marvelous" and she "always took my breath away." She held out hope that her success would bring an offer, maybe even from New York City Ballet. But in the end, nothing came her way.

On Her Own

Nitting spent the next year in the work-study program at Steps, where dancers take class for $5 in exchange for working at the studio. "I didn't make other plans outside of dance," she says, "so I just had to keep going." She took daily class from Bielski and booked a few freelance gigs, working with Tom Gold Dance, Eglevsky Ballet and Neglia Ballet.

And, for the third year in a row, she did open calls in New York City and sent out videos to companies, but struck out. She went to Miami City Ballet's open call, given their interest the year before, only to be cut after barre.

Nitting decided not to travel for auditions anymore. "It's too expensive for the possibility of ending up with nothing," she says. Bielski says that finding a job is like going on a date—chemistry with the director has to be right. She explains that Nitting's body type is muscular and athletic, which doesn't fit with every company. While Nitting's technique is quite strong, her artistry makes her really shine, and that doesn't always show in an audition setting.

Finally, in June 2017, after months with no traction anywhere, Nitting got a spot with Pennsylvania Ballet II, which gave her the opportunity to perform with the main company in The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. The experience made her want a contract more than ever. But mid-season, the artistic staff informed her she wasn't a fit for Pennsylvania Ballet.

For the fourth year in a row, Nitting was back on the audition circuit.

The Turning Point

A fresh round of rejections followed and it wore her down. "I wondered if maybe this wasn't for me," she says. "I also knew that, age-wise, my time was running out."

Finally, in the spring of 2018, at an open call for Kansas City Ballet, she caught the eye of artistic director Devon Carney, who remembered her from an audition video she'd sent two years earlier. "She was attentive to the steps in a more mature way than most," he says. "You could also tell she enjoyed herself."

He emailed Nitting and asked her to send a video with studio variations and performance footage from her freelance gigs. "That was the deal maker," says Carney. "She definitely showed her abilities." He offered her a spot in KCB II, and while it wasn't the apprentice or company contract Nitting hoped for, she wanted to keep dancing and took it.

Almost two months later, she emailed Carney to ask about finding housing she could afford on a second-company salary.

"He said a spot opened up in the main company, and he thought of me first," she says. He asked her if she wanted it. "I was shocked!"

Carney notes that, in addition to Nitting's enthusiasm and professionalism, part of why he hired her stemmed from his memory of the audition video she'd sent two years earlier. She had radically improved since then, he says. "I had a better understanding of who she was than the other dancers I could choose from."

A New Life

Nitting is glad she stuck it out, but she won't miss auditioning, which she says can be dehumanizing. "I know it's a business, but it's like companies forget you're a person. They'll charge $30 for an open audition and then cut you after 10 minutes," she says.

Her love of performing kept her going, as did support from her family. "My mom came with me to most of my auditions," says Nitting, who adds that she's her best friend. "The hardest part was when I'd hear my number called to get cut. I didn't want to leave the studio and see my mom's face after another rejection."

Her mother came to Kansas City for Nitting's first performance with the company in The Wizard of Oz. As she walked up to the theater, she saw a poster of all the company dancers and stopped to take a picture. A stranger asked her if she knew someone in the show.

"My daughter," her mother replied. "She's in the company."

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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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