Ida Praetorius photographed by Nathan Sayers.

Ballerina in Bloom: The Royal Danish Ballet's Ida Praetorius

This is Pointe's February/March 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

It's 10 am on a cool fall morning in a Royal Danish Ballet studio, and only one dancer is wearing pointe shoes at the barre as company class starts: Ida Praetorius. The 20-year-old performs tiny, fast ronds de jambe and expansive fondus with rapt, relentless dedication. At the end, barely pausing for breath, she squeezes a few more minutes in the studio and throws herself full-out into Balanchine's fouettés for Dewdrop, which she will dance in the company's upcoming production of his Nutcracker. It's October and the rehearsals are still some time away, but she is visibly itching to tackle the role.


A product of the Royal Danish Ballet School, Praetorius joined RDB when she was 16. Four years later she has already become one of its major faces under Nikolaj Hübbe, who returned to his alma mater as artistic director in 2009. Her breakthrough came in 2011, when she was still an apprentice, in a dark Danish classic, Flemming Flindt's macabre The Lesson. Her debut as the Student and subsequent performances showed raw talent, her sunny exuberance and coltish limbs an ideal match for the role of the pert young girl at first eager, then terrified by her ballet teacher. “It was perfect because she was really a teenager," says Hübbe. “She was like a spring flower, excited and bubbly, and it made the story immediately tragic."

Three years later, Praetorius has proved that it wasn't beginner's luck. Aided by the work ethic she displays in the studio, she looks poised to break the mold of the traditional Danish ballerina. Blessed with a slender frame and long legs, she seems the opposite of the compact body type and quicksilver footwork demanded by Bournonville, and far from merely pretty. Just as Hübbe is opening up the RDB with quirky productions of the classics, new work and imports from abroad (including a number of American dancers), his protégée's uncanny ability to make characters seem modern and real stands out. Vivid and instinctive as she plays the awkward Student or falls on the stairs on her way to the ball as John Neumeier's Juliet, she has poured her vitality into strikingly natural performances.

Born in Copenhagen, Praetorius practically grew up in the wings of the Royal Danish Theatre. The daughter of a former dancer with the Hamburg Ballet and an economist, she started asking for dance lessons by age 3. When she was 8, her dance school was offered a day trip behind the scenes at the Royal Danish Ballet. Praetorius was captivated, and a teacher, noticing her potential as she played around on the stage, suggested she audition for the RDB School.

She was accepted straightaway. “It was this magical place, because the school is in the theater," she remembers. “You walk in the hallways and you see your idols every day. I always tried to talk to them, but I was very nervous." While naturally flexible, Praetorius worked hard to compensate for her relative lack of turnout and still does daily exercises—pliés, relevés and ronds de jambe on the Pilates reformer—to help her strengthen those muscles. Her main inspiration was RDB principal Gudrun Bojesen, a consummate actress and Bournonville dancer with whom she now shares the stage (and even a couple of roles). Like all Danish students, she also found herself regularly cast in the Bournonville repertoire, which has plenty of roles for children.

Praetorius in Neumeier's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.

That's how Praetorius first met Hübbe, who came to set a new production of La Sylphide on the company in 2005. He cast her as the little girl who has a prominent part in Act I. Hübbe remembers his first impression vividly: "She was curious, eager, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little squirrel. You saw immediately that this was a girl who was coordinated, musical, who could dance." She affectionately became known to the company as "Lille-Ida," Danish for "Little Ida," and Hübbe didn't think twice about hiring her as an apprentice in 2010.

Praetorius was 16 at the time, and a late growth spurt—she shot up to 5' 7"—proved an unexpected challenge as she navigated the exacting RDB apprentice schedule, which involves two classes a day in addition to rehearsals and shows. "I was doing small girls' roles when I joined, but I grew between 16 and 18, and suddenly I was medium-tall. I had to work on my balance." Hübbe jokes: "All of a sudden we turned around and Lille-Ida wasn't that little anymore."

Hübbe soon took on the role of mentor. In 2012, as Praetorius was starting her first year as a corps member, he entered her and another dancer, Andreas Kaas, in The Erik Bruhn Prize competition. They swept the awards, taking home the two Best Dancer prizes and the choreographic prize for a contemporary pas de deux created for them by Alessandro Sousa Pereira. Hübbe travelled with the young pair and coached them. "He is very easy to talk to, very open and straightforward," Praetorius says. "At night he would text us to say: 'You were so great today, I'm so proud of you!' "


Andreas Kaas and Praetorius in Neumeier's "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Royal Danish Ballet.

A roller coaster of a season followed for Praetorius in Copenhagen. In a symbolic passing of the torch between generations, Danish star Thomas Lund chose her to share the stage with him in The Lesson for his farewell performance. Last spring, she also made her debut in two leading roles: Eleonore in Kermesse in Bruges—an opportunity to show that despite her body type, she has mastered the Bournonville style—and Juliet in John Neumeier's version of the classic story. When it came to learning Juliet, Praetorius followed her instincts and let her personality and youthful awkwardness color it. "Juliet is a little clumsy in this version," she says. "She's barefoot and a mess in the first scene, and it just came naturally." The role was a milestone for her, says Hübbe. "Ida can often be the good girl, because she's so unbelievably conscientious. With Juliet, all of a sudden her palette got bigger. We saw a tragic Ida, a strong Ida, a girl becoming a woman."

Neumeier himself was impressed, and soon came an invitation to take part in Hamburg Ballet's prestigious Nijinsky Gala. Praetorius relished the opportunity to work with her mother's former company. "She retrained as a doctor, so I never knew her as a dancer," she says. "But I saw a picture of her on the wall there, and it made it so real." Neumeier taught Praetorius his Daphnis and Chloe himself, changing details along the way to suit her and Kaas. The choreographer has already cast her in the lead role of Lady of the Camellias, which returns to the RDB repertoire next fall.

Praetorius has a built-in support system at the RDB: She has inspired her two younger brothers to follow in her footsteps at the company school. Tobias, 17, is now an apprentice with the company; Lucas, 13, is still a student. Are they planning to take over the Danish ballet world? "We're the freaky family—we're starting our own company soon," Praetorius jokes. Looking ahead, her wish list includes the ultimate Danish classic, La Sylphide, and a creation with Neumeier. In the meantime, she fits into Hübbe's plans for a diverse repertoire in Copenhagen. "She has a brilliant technique, a beautiful body, and she's growing in a very organic way," he says. "With time, I can imagine her as a versatile principal who can do everything—classical, modern, romantic." He adds with a smile: "It's a feel-good story with her."

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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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