Hernández and Tamara Rojo rehearsing the Black Swan pas de deux. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris.

Catching Up with Isaac Hernández: The Driven English National Ballet Star Always Keeps His Long-Term Goals in Mind

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Pointe.

At 25, Isaac Hernández is entering his prime, and he knows it. This eternally restless dancer, already a veteran of two companies, recently found a home at a third, English National Ballet. There, he has been paired with the eminent ballerinas Tamara Rojo (his boss) and Alina Cojocaru. His has been an impressive ascent for a young man who began his training in the backyard of his house in Guadalajara, standing at a homemade barre alongside 10 brothers and sisters. The Hernández clan's instructor was their father, Hector Hernández, a former dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Houston Ballet and Harkness Ballet. (Isaac's brother Esteban is a dancer at San Francisco Ballet.) But even now, Isaac wants more. Not satisfied to focus solely on his career, Hernández has launched an initiative in Mexico geared toward creating opportunities for young dancers, including a tuition-free ballet school. Pointe caught up with him recently when he was in New York City.


Why did you decide to join English National Ballet?

Artistic director Tamara Rojo brought me in as a guest in December 2014 to dance with Erina Takahashi in Swan Lake. Then she invited me on tour with the company. I didn't know until I looked at the schedule that I would be dancing with Tamara. After the first couple of performances, I told her I wanted to stay. It's the first time I've been in a company that has so many full-length ballets. And I get to dance with Alina Cojocaru and Tamara.

Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris

What is Tamara Rojo like, as a director and as a partner?

I enjoy working for her because I like the vision she has for the company. She's a very driven director. But I get two versions of Tamara because when we are working in the studio, it is like the relationship I have with any other partner. She's very friendly and happy and we work well together. She takes risks and I like that. I like dancers who are unpredictable, who give in to the moment. That is the whole point of dancing for me.

You're part of a new generation of dancers who want more freedom to direct their careers.

It's important to be in a place where the director has your best interest at heart. Many now understand that what's best for the dancers is also good for the company. It's convenient for them to have happy dancers. I feel that Tamara is giving me the opportunity to be the best dancer I can be.

Do you think you'll stay at ENB?

I told Tamara, I cannot say how long I will stay, but I know I will stay as long as I'm happy and continue to feel myself improving and going somewhere. I can't imagine a better atmosphere to develop in. At the end of the day, I'm not doing anyone any favors, just as no one is doing me any favors. I'm offering them my best years.

Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris

You joined San Francisco Ballet at age 18. What was your experience there like?

It opened a whole different world for me. I was learning 27 ballets in one season. But the rehearsal process was not always enough for me to feel comfortable with what I was doing. I was doing things okay, but they could have been much better with more preparation. I got to do my first full-length there, Balanchine's Coppélia. I had an amazing time, and I realized then that I really loved the acting and the storytelling.

Why did you go to Dutch National Ballet?

I took class with the company and realized that it would be the perfect place for me to learn. I looked at the rep for the next few years, and it was amazing: Don Q, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, all the full-lengths I wanted to do. And I would have the time to prepare them. I had an amazing partner there, Jurgita Dronina. That was the first time I found that sort of trust with a partner.

So why did you leave?

I've always had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish in my career, and I believe that the only way to accomplish it is to experience different things. That has made me a very diverse dancer.

Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris

You've started a nonprofit organization in Mexico for young dancers. What is the idea behind it?

What I know is ballet, and that it has the power to change your life. I come from a very poor family with 11 children, and I've had an incredible life because of ballet. We wanted to develop an outreach program like the ones they have here in America. We proposed our idea to the state government of Jalisco, where I'm from, and we opened the first free ballet school in the country. We wanted to do it in a state that had a lot of youth violence and other issues. It's been a year, and we already have 300 students. I do fundraising everywhere I go. We've also developed another project, a bus with a screen that we take to public spaces in low-income neighborhoods, creating ballet evenings for families who have never seen one.

Do you have interests outside of ballet?

I read a lot. I play tennis, I play golf and I read.

Do you have advice for young dancers?

Be prepared when opportunity comes. It's easy to get settled and comfortable in a company. But never forget what you want to be. I love the passage in Charlie Chaplin's biography where he says that, even when he was working in a small theater in the middle of nowhere, he always felt like he would accomplish what he wanted. And I think that has been present in my mind, the feeling of knowing what I want to be. I've had high expectations for myself.

How do you define success?

For me success has been the happiness I have felt in my career, at every moment. There are a lot of unhappy dancers doing a profession in which it doesn't make sense to be unhappy. They feel they've missed their opportunity or don't get the opportunities they deserve. But when you let go of everybody else's problems and everybody else's idea of what your career should be and truly dance and enjoy the moment, things happen.

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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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