Pregnancy Was Diana Vishneva's "Only Chance to Take A Rest." Now She's Back and Busier Than Ever.

Diana Vishneva has had a very big year. In 2017, she retired from American Ballet Theatre, performing Onegin with the company one last time, accompanied by her longtime partner Marcelo Gomes. Then, in September, she opened a ballet studio in her home city of St. Petersburg called CONTEXT Pro. Soon after, she marked the fifth edition of her festival of contemporary dance, CONTEXT, with two weeks of performances, workshops and talks in Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the biggest event came several months later, with the birth of her first child. (As she points out with some satisfaction, the timing was perfect—she didn't have to cancel a single engagement.)

The pregnancy allowed Vishneva to step back from an international career that has kept her constantly on the move for the better part of the last two decades. The ballet world receded from her consciousness, but not for long. We spoke in New York, where she resides part of the year, just as she was gearing up for the first of a series of performances and projects. The day after our chat, her son would turn 100 days old.


Congratulations on your new baby! Has the name been made public?

It came out in Russian social media; it's Rudolf Victor.

Does the name have any particular significance for you?

Victor is my father's name, and it has been a lucky patronymic for me.

How has it been for you, coming back from the pregnancy?

I've seen how a lot of ballerinas do class and work well into their pregnancy and how quickly they return after giving birth. But the doctors did not allow me to do this, and even after the birth I was not allowed to practice for six weeks. So as it happened I didn't do anything for 10 months. It was perhaps the only chance in my life I've had to take a rest. Now this has been a very interesting time because in a sense you start over from the beginning. Of course the muscle memory is there, but you need to get back the muscles. It's a very slow process. But I know my body very well, so it's interesting to analyze and start putting things back together. You even have the opportunity to correct certain problems.

What has been your routine in the last few months?

After those first six weeks I did not run back to ballet class. First I went to Pilates. When I was dancing I did not need Pilates, because I got what I needed through dancing. And I didn't want to do it, despite the advice of several people around me. Then I started doing some fitness activities, very light weights, to gain back my strength. And only after that did I go back to class. I've been working with Nancy Bielski at Steps on Broadway for 15 years, since Vladimir Malakhov introduced me to her. Also I have regular massages and I swim whenever I find an hour. It's not easy with a child.

You'll be returning to the stage soon—what is your first engagement?

I'll be dancing Ohad Naharin's Boléro at the Paris Opéra Ballet, with Aurélie Dupont, in late September. We performed it together at my festival, CONTEXT, in 2016. Then, when Aurélie was named director of the Paris Opéra, Ohad said, I want you to dance this in Paris in 2018. But I didn't know then that I would be a mother.

Will you be taking Gaga classes ahead of that performance?

Yes! I'm going to Paris on September 17 and we'll work for 10 days.

Naharin is also coming to the CONTEXT festival this year, isn't he?

Yes, Batsheva Dance Company will be coming and Ohad and I will be leading a series of master classes and public talks. The National Ballet of Canada is also coming, with a repertoire of new works; it's the largest company we've ever invited. [They'll be performing Paz de la Jolla by Justin Peck; Emergence by Crystal Pite; and Guillaume Côté's Being and Nothingness.] And of course we'll be holding the choreographic competition for young choreographers.


The festival seems to be expanding?

Yes, we're doing things in other cities besides Moscow and St. Petersburg now, like Yekaterinburg and Perm. Next March we'll be bringing programs to Tel Aviv and London's Sadler's Wells. And maybe in a year we'll bring something to New York.

One thing I've heard you express often is your love of St. Petersburg. What is it about this city?

The people who live in St. Petersburg are absolutely different from the ones who live in Moscow. I think we are saturated by the architecture, the atmosphere, the culture. It's in our DNA. I went to the oldest and greatest school in St. Petersburg, worked at the Mariinsky, a theater with the most wonderful traditions. I live in a magical city. I don't know how to even put that into words, it's almost a physical part of me. With my art and my work I hope I can make a microscopic contribution to its magical beauty.

What about your latest project, Sleeping Beauty Dreams, this multimedia collaboration with the architect Rem Khass? What is it exactly?

Rem Khass and I started thinking about it a couple of years ago. At some point I thought, I need to do something radically different. I started meeting people from the technology and art world. The idea is not to retell the Sleeping Beauty story—it's about what is happening to the character of Aurora, inside her head, while she's sleeping for 100 years. She has all these dreams. The world of dreams is unique, so it doesn't have to be confined by time or space.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is very black and white, about good and evil. Our idea is that both good and evil exist within her, and they fight each other. We're going to create digital characters who exist exclusively in the virtual world. They will come alive and interact with me. So I will have virtual partners. [The show opens on Dec. 7 in Miami and then comes to New York on Dec. 14.]


In an odd intersection of art and politics, a person involved in promoting the show early on, Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide, was recently interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Were you surprised?

He was once part of the marketing team but is no longer involved. He originally told the team that he had put his political career behind him, but when it turned out not to be so, there was a collective decision to part ways.

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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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