Dancers prepare for a 2017 Atlanta Ballet open audition.

Jim Lafferty

COVID-19 Has Cut Audition Season Short. How Are Dancers Coping?

Emily and Ally Helman hoped this would be the year they'd find a company contract. The sisters, who have held various second company and apprentice positions, mapped out their audition schedules and sent out videos and resumés. By March, they had mixed results but were determined to keep going.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic brought audition season to a sudden halt.

"I've put so much work into what I've been doing this past year and I don't know if I'll be able to get the end results," says Emily. "Will companies even have jobs available when this is all over?"

The pandemic has brought chaos and loss to nearly all corners of the world­—ballet included. It's hit companies hard, with most forced to cancel performances, lay off dancers and close their studios. The timing is particularly tough for those who were hoping to find a job for the 2020-21 season. Auditions typically occur from late January to mid-April. But with virtually no notice, weeks of audition opportunities disappeared, leaving dancers and directors scrambling.

"The speed at which things have changed, and are changing, is really unprecedented," says Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West. "We're taking some chances right now to make things work."

Two young women stand side by side in sous-sus on pointe and stretch their right arms high in allong\u00e9. They wear white leotards and pointe shoes, their flowing blond hair trailing down their backs.

Emily (left) and Ally Helman

Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy Emily Helman

A Wrench in an Already-tough Landscape

The audition process is normally time consuming and expensive, with dancers sending out dozens of resumés and videos and often flying to cities across the country for a chance to be seen. Many do this year after year before they land a company position.

The Helman sisters both graduated from School of American Ballet. Emily, 22, then spent two years as a trainee at Boston Ballet and a year in Sarasota Ballet's studio company. Ally, 20, is in the Professional Division at Pacific Northwest Ballet School. She had spent one season as an apprentice at New York City Ballet, but was injured when her contract ended and wasn't able to audition. She joined PNB's program in October when her foot healed. Since Emily didn't have a contract this season, she moved to Seattle with her sister to take open classes and get ready for auditions.

They decided to travel only for company class or other pre-screened auditions, primarily to save on costs. "Flying places and having to audition every year, the travel expenses have been a lot," Emily says.

But she was only able to get to one company class, at Festival Ballet Providence, before the rest of the companies she connected with cancelled. She's still hoping to hear from Festival Ballet, but ending the audition season with one in-person class was tough to accept.

Ally hadn't had any invitations when the company closures hit.

"I'm just waiting to see what the places I'm interested in say, as far as whether they're still going to see dancers," she says. "I can't do much more at this point."

At a table against a studio mirror, a middle-aged man and woman review resum\u00e9s and photos while Adam Sklute sits next to them in a chair. Two barres of auditioning dances flank the photo on each side.

Adam Sklute (third from left) observes dancers during a 2016 Ballet West open audition. The company had to cancel its open auditions this year.

Jim Lafferty

The Year of the Video

At Ballet West, Sklute had to cancel his open calls, where he had over 200 dancers preregistered and expected more walk-ins. But he had already seen 50 dancers through company class auditions and filled all the slots for the main company when the pandemic hit. He continued accepting video auditions for open positions in Ballet West II through the second week of April.

For the first time ever, he offered a contract to someone he'd never seen in person, hiring a dancer for Ballet West II.

"I've had people send pictures and when they come to the audition, they look nothing like what they've sent," says Sklute. "But this is a special situation. I'm willing to take a chance right now."

Sklute asked dancers to introduce themselves in their video and follows up with those he's interested in with a phone call because, "who they are as an individual is so important. They are part of the Ballet West team."

He also saw an opportunity to provide something auditionees often crave but don't get: feedback. For $20, what he would charge for attending an open call, dancers can receive written critique from the artistic staff about their technique and performance style.

Two young female dancers in leotards and shorts practice d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 a la seconde with their right legs, their arms in high fifth. They are practicing in front of their kitchen counter.

Ally (left) and Emily Helman take class together in their Seattle kitchen.

Courtesy Emily Helman

"I can't tell you the amount of auditionees who want feedback, and we usually just can't do it," he says. "A lot of dancers are taking advantage of this option."

Sklute's request that dancers add an introduction is the only main departure from the International Audition Guidelines, which standardizes audition video requirements.

But Ally Helman says that other companies have niche requirements for video submissions that are more than just talking.

"There's no studios open to go to," says Ally. "My sister and I do barre all the time in our kitchen. But beyond that, there's not much I can film right now."

However, some directors don't mind the kitchen. Sklute says he has received a few submissions with dancers doing barre at home coupled with performance footage. "Seeing up-close tendus and dégagés was very helpful."

During an onstage performance, two young men in costumes of jackets and pants link arms and skip in front of a leafy backdrop.

Beau Chesivoir (facing front) with Vinicius Lima in a Ballet West II production of Snow White

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Looking for Certainty

The only thing that's certain right now is that no one knows how deep the effects of the pandemic will be. For some dancers, just securing something is a win, even if it's a fourth year in a second company.

Beau Chesivoir, 22, just signed a contract for a third year at Ballet West II. He was previously with Pennsylvania Ballet II for a season. He'd known since January that Sklute would not have a spot for him in the main company. When the closures hit, he had done several auditions, but only received one second company offer, which he turned down. He was still hoping to hear from a few companies that had expressed interest when Sklute offered him another year in Ballet West II. With nothing secured, he took it.

"It isn't what I necessarily would've wished for a couple months ago," he says. "I am grateful for Ballet West giving me an opportunity to work in the coming year. I'll just have to be patient"

A young woman in a black long-sleeved leotard pushes over her feet on pointe with her knees bent, her left hand pushing down on her left knee and her right arm extended high behind her.

Claire Buehler

Rachel Malehorn, Courtesy Buehler

Claire Buehler, 23, has spent five years in three different second companies, including one that she says couldn't provide any pay or pointe shoes. She was determined to find a paid, main-company position this year. She had done several auditions when the closures hit, with more planned. She got one offer almost a month ago, an apprenticeship with Minnesota Ballet. But she's still waiting to receive the contract as the company finalizes its budget.

"This was my strongest audition season and it was heartbreaking to see so many opportunities slip away," says Buehler. "But I was thrilled with the offer I got and just hope it all works out."

All four dancers say they understand the impossible positions companies are in right now, but hope that directors will maintain open and honest communication with auditionees to help them plan.

"Just being kept up to date about what's happening really helps," says Ally Helman. "We all are hoping we can continue to pursue what we want to do and have trained our whole lives for."

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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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