Wonderbound's Candice Bergeron and Damien Patterson in Winter. Photo by Amanda Tripton, Courtesy Wonderbound.

Want to Join a Contemporary Ballet Company? Here's What You Should Be Doing Now

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of Pointe.

When she was a teenager, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Seia Rassenti's training was about as classical as it could get. A full-time bunhead at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, she was determined to get a solid technical foundation. But she knew in her heart that she wanted to dance contemporary.


Nearly every summer, Rassenti would attend a contemporary ballet program, like Complexions, The Ailey School or Debbie Allen Dance Academy in L.A. "That was my outlet," she says. "Each program had a different atmosphere, and I met some really cool people who had interests outside of ballet." Then at summer's end, she would faithfully return to the classical world and get back to "work." For Rassenti, her classical training was her means to an end. And it paid off: She earned a contract with Charlotte Ballet's second company (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre 2), known for its diverse and innovative repertoire.

The road to a contemporary ballet career isn't a clear-cut path. And while strong classical technique is vital, nothing sticks out more than a bunhead in pink tights at a contemporary audition. That's because traditional ballet training does not typically prepare dancers for the contemporary genre's emphasis on collaborating, questioning, improvising and baring your soul even when it doesn't feel pretty. So if a ballet dancer knows that this is the world she was made for, what can she do to prepare?

Branch Out

Josie Walsh's contemporary class at Joffrey Ballet School's summer intensive. Photo by Jody Quinby Kasch, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet School.

A classical foundation is essential for contemporary ballet companies, especially those that work on pointe. But classically trained dancers face a specific set of challenges: They have to learn to isolate each body part, pick up detailed choreography quickly and embrace being off-center. "You have to learn to trust your classical technique, to let go of it," says Rassenti.

"I find that a lot of classically trained dancers lose their natural instincts," says Josie Walsh, artistic director of Joffrey Ballet School's Contemporary Ballet Intensive in San Francisco and founder of Ballet RED. "They're trying to be this classical ideal, and they get very separate from something more organic."

Walsh recommends supplementing your training with a variety of classes, like modern, jazz and even hip hop to practice freer styles of movement and learn how to pick up small details quickly. Dawn Fay, producing director of Wonderbound in Denver, Colorado, also recommends hip hop, explaining its benefits on a basic anatomical level: Whereas classical ballet tends to be smoother and utilizes "slow twitch" muscle fibers, hip hop involves sudden movements, which require finely tuned "quick twitch" muscle fibers.

Christine Cox, artistic and executive director of BalletX in Philadelphia, also recommends recreational classes like Zumba, or if you're old enough, going to a dance club to find your innate rhythm and let go of trying to fit a mold. "It's really important that dancers can move every part of their bodies in a new and different way," she says.

A New Mindset

Aspen Santa Fe's Seia Rassenti (right) in Beautiful Mistake. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Contemporary teachers often talk about finding "honesty" in choreography. But what does that mean? At its most basic, "honesty" refers to embracing (and revealing) your unprotected, vulnerable humanity, as well as letting your own voice shine through the choreography. "A lot of contemporary choreographers look to their dancers for ideas and want them to be a part of the process," says Cox.

But first, you must find your voice. Improvisation classes are one of the best ways to prepare. "It's a craft," says Walsh. "It's something that you have to do every day and get used to." Any style of improvisation is beneficial, but Karah Abiog, program director for Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program, notes that Gaga is currently one of the most popular styles used for exploration.

It's also important to gain experience with the creation process to practice adapting to different choreographers' styles and learn how to pick up new material quickly. For Walsh, this is one of the most important qualities a dancer can possess: "When I'm choreographing, I would rather work with a dancer who is less talented but who can remember my choreography, than a more talented dancer who can't remember, so that I can keep moving quickly and follow through the line of inspiration."

Finding Balance

"Contemporary choreographers look to their dancer for ideas and want them to be a part of the process." –Christine Cox

BalletX's Andrea Yorita in Malasangre. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy BalletX.

It might seem like aspiring contemporary dancers have to work double duty, logging both classical and exploratory training hours each week. "It doesn't necessarily mean doubling your hours," says Abiog. "It's doubling your conscious way of working, your mindset."

To do this, Cox suggests finding a training equation that works for you, and keeping it consistent. For instance, devoting 75 percent of your week to ballet, and 25 percent to other styles such as jazz, modern technique or improvisation.

Regardless, Cox recommends connecting with your classical base every day. Fay, Abiog and Walsh agree: While thorough classical training might not be required in all contemporary dance, impeccable classical technique is non-negotiable to join a contemporary ballet company. Cleanliness and purity of line are difficult to instill in the body otherwise.

Strategizing Your Career

Ressenti in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's Square None. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

Because "contemporary dance" is such a broad term, the first step towards approaching a career is to identify choreographers that you admire. Begin by researching online and going to performances, then by attending workshops, intensives or master classes hosted by your favorite companies and choreographers. Because they're all so different, it's important to know what you're getting into before you make a commitment.

Networking is key. Contemporary companies tend to be small, with dancers participating in the creation process, so most directors want to get to know you on a personal level before offering a contract. When Walsh needs a new dancer quickly, for instance, the last thing she wants to do is organize a large audition. "I'll think, I really like that girl who came to my program in San Francisco," she says. "Taking you into a company is like taking you into a family. You're with these people every day."

Most importantly, think about your career goals: For example, would you prefer a repertoire that offers both classical and contemporary works, or one that's strictly contemporary? Do you want to work with one choreographer or many? Would you prefer a company that works on pointe, or are you comfortable dancing mostly in socks?

For Rassenti, the mixed repertoire at Charlotte Ballet was a comfortable transition. But by the time she joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, she was ready to jump into contemporary full-time—and she hasn't looked back. "In this company, we create a lot of new works," she says. "I know that there is a part of my soul in every piece."

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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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