Family Ties

During Nutcracker season, when Christopher Ruud was a young student at the San Francisco Ballet School, he often eluded his chaperone to lead his fellow boy party guests through the catacombs and across the
catwalks of the War Memorial Opera House. This historic theater was a backdrop to Ruud’s childhood even before his formal training began: San Francisco Ballet corps dancers were his babysitters, ballets were viewed from the wings and stage makeup was learned watching his dad prepare for performance.

Second-generation professionals are rarities, but among them, these memories are a normal part of their childhoods. “I grew up backstage watching my dad dance and being around the whole ballet scene,” says Ruud, who is now a principal dancer at Ballet West. Ruud’s father, the late Tomm Ruud was a BW and SFB principal who later became a character dancer and choreographer, and his mother, Mary Wood, was also a BW dancer, who taught at SFBS while her son was growing up.

With ballet in their blood, dancers whose parents also danced may seem to have it made. But they often have more to consider when entering the profession.

Certainly, dancers’ children have a few competitive advantages. They often have access to outstanding training from an early age. Ruud, for instance, started studying at SFBS at age 8, while New York City Ballet principal Kyra Nichols, daughter of Sally Streets—a NYCB corps dancer in the 1950s—took her first ballet class when she was 4 years old (in the basement of her grandmother’s house in Berkeley, CA, where Streets had just started a school).

“Most dancers who have children who dance don’t want to teach them, but there weren’t any other teachers,” says Streets, now a renowned Bay Area teacher. “I believed in myself enough to take the chance with her, and it paid off.” Nichols’ training continued with Alan Howard, a former Ballet Russes and NYCB veteran, at Pacific Ballet, a school and semiprofessional ballet company in San Francisco. (Streets had come out of retirement to perform with the ensemble.) One year, Nichols, who had been spending summers at the School of American Ballet, was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy in a new version of Pacific Ballet’s Nutcracker, while her mother would be Arabian. “She was like, ‘OK, you’re taking my parts now. You’re off to New York,’” Nichols laughs. “I’d already been asked to go, but it fortified [the decision to] move.” She was 15 when she went to SAB full time, and halfway through the year, she was hired into NYCB.

Australian Ballet principal Damien Welch—brother of Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch and son of former AB dancers Garth Welch and Marilyn Jones (who was also once one of the company’s artistic directors)—had impeccable training as well, except he didn’t begin until he was 15 years old. And then, after only nine months of taking class in his parents’ studio, he landed a coveted spot at the Australian Ballet School. “It was a very rich way to start, coming at it so late,” says Welch, explaining that he knew exactly what he was getting into, because he’d been around ballet all his life, whether helping out backstage as a dresser or appearing in full-lengths as an extra.

In a field where going pro is virtually impossible if training doesn’t begin by the age of 10, Welch’s rapid ascent may have been given a boost by his background, however, Marilyn Jones didn’t expect either of her sons to end up as dancers. She says, “It’s like a child growing up surrounded by people speaking different languages. It becomes part of your nature, and the development is quicker. Damien grew up in the theater, so he had a great understanding. He could pick up [steps] quickly, and you need to be around [ballet] to do that for sure, especially starting at that age.” 

Second-generation dancers are also likely to get noticed, whether in class, at auditions or onstage, simply because they have a known name attached to them already. Being in an environment where teachers, ballet masters and guest choreographers already know you, however, can exert added pressure. “They can’t go anywhere without running into somebody who knew their parents,” says Ruud’s mother, Wood. “The blessing is you automatically have an underpinning of familiarity. The curse is that people have expectations, or they’re looking at you more critically.”

Already being part of the bigger ballet family has other rewards. For instance, Jacques d’Amboise, who knew Streets from her NYCB days, took Nichols under his wing when she was at SAB. Likewise, when Ruud was studying ballet at the University of Utah, his parents’ alma mater, he had the chance to learn Coppélia from Willam Christensen, who had taught his father many years before. “It impacted me to sit there and think this man [had said] the same things to my father and here I am,” Ruud recalls.

The common thread between Nichols, Ruud and Welch’s experiences is that they learned what it means to be a professional in a way (and at an age) that other dancers don’t. “Watching [my father] was the foundation for my professionalism,” says Ruud. “I never got to be special simply because of my dad. I learned to suck it up and be a dancer, and not Tomm’s son.” Growing up in a ballet household also taught him how to navigate ballet’s notorious politicking. “One misstep or misspoken word and everyone has this opinion of you,” says Ruud. “I got advice from my mom about things like rising above, holding my head up high and doing the right thing.”

Nichols says that she too learned a great deal from watching her mother, especially when the pair toured together internationally with Pacific Ballet through Europe and Israel. “She always made the best of any situation,” Nichols recalls of her mom. “Just because [you might be performing in] a crappy theater in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean you just phone it in. You give your all.”

Despite following in one or both parents’ footsteps, each of these artists has had to cope with rising standards and to establish a distinct career on his or her own terms. “Dancers’ technique has changed,” says Jones. “Their legs are higher, and there are more turns—there is stronger technique with progress.” And Jones is proud of her sons’ successes: “They’re professionals now, and I feel like they could teach me a thing a two.” Streets agrees: “Up to a certain point, Kyra was learning from me, but when she became a prominent performer, I learned so much. I never can quite believe when she’s onstage that it’s her—and that this thing that is so very wonderful has happened.”

Though the journey to artistic and technical independence began for Nichols when she moved to New York City and for Welch when he began ABS’ professional program, Ruud took a more unusual path: When he was 14, he quit ballet entirely. “He had a pretty classic syndrome of having worked at his parents business all these years and just needed to get away from the family,” says Wood. “Tomm and I encouraged him to step away—we didn’t want him to be sitting on a therapist’s couch saying ‘my parents made me.’ [But privately, we] said, ‘Darn it! He was so good, and he’s going to miss out on the training in this critical teenage time.’”

Ruud didn’t return to dance until he enrolled in a ballet class in college and was recruited into the ballet department right away by the faculty. Reconnecting with ballet was, in many aspects, a way of reconnecting with his father, who died when Ruud was 17. “We had an incredible relationship, and we knew each other very well,” says Ruud. “But you can only know so much about a person in the few short years of being a kid, so subconsciously I was following the trail to see what I could learn…. I had to go be where [dad] was and figure it out for myself.”

Latest Posts

Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
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."

Editors' Picks