Company Life: Learning Professionalism

I remember feeling thrilled but anxious when I signed my first-year corps contract with San Francisco Ballet. My mind raced: What does it mean to be professional? What do I need to do to succeed in a company environment? Like the other new members, I was out of school and therefore out of my comfort zone.

 

Luckily for me, this feeling didn’t last very long. I soon gained confidence and set out to carve my own path—thanks to a few principal dancers who unknowingly showed me the way.

 

“Watch Muriel Maffre,” Helgi Tomasson told me. “Learn from her.” Little did he know that I had already been studying the French ballerina, and not just for her exquisite artistry. I noticed how she maintained her focus while other dancers created drama. I saw that she was respectful of everyone: guest choreographers, dressers at the theater, first-year apprentices. She never shouted into her cell phone in the lounge, broadcasting her personal life for all to hear. Even when I became a principal and moved into her dressing room, Muriel treated me not as the junior dancer I was but as an equal. To me, she was the epitome of professional. 

 

Unfortunately, not all ballerinas behave like Muriel. My strict definition of a “ballerina” has everything to do with artistic quality and nothing to do with personal character. Some phenomenal dancers are arrogant divas, while others who are equally talented manage to remain unassuming and down to earth. Dancers in both catergories are “ballerinas,” but my role models have always been the latter.

 

Muriel’s behavior taught me the importance of steering clear of messy company politics—a lesson that I would soon put to good use. When I was 18, having just returned from a yearlong hiatus during which I nursed three stress fractures, I was chosen to learn the lead in Balanchine’s Bugaku. It was a kind gesture on Helgi’s part, a move I knew was intended to help motivate me. But I was an unpopular choice in the eyes of many company members, and I felt their disapproval. Thinking of what Muriel would do, I was determined to ignore their negativity and concentrate on my work, because I wanted to make the most of this opportunity. Maintaining a positive attitude is always easier said than done, however, so it helped that I had Muriel’s example to follow. She was first cast for Bugaku, and I had the benefit of studying her thoughtful approach in our intimate rehearsals. That experience was my first step towards defining my own idea of what is appropriate in the studio and figuring out how I could not only survive but thrive in a company environment.

 

Other senior company members helped me learn the value of a sense of humor. Former SFB principals Joanna Berman and Julia Adam were not only incredible artists but also the company comedians. Always laughing—whether it was about a “Seinfeld” episode, an onstage mishap or a random quip—they kept the mood light in the studio, and I loved being around them. Humor, they taught me, eases tension and creates a less inhibited work environment, turning awkward moments into potential jokes and keeping things in perspective. And it doesn’t preclude serious artistic work, either. Anyone who has been in rehearsal with Mark Morris knows that it’s impossible to keep a straight face, yet he commands respect and inspires hard work. (It’s no surprise that Joanna and Julia were two of his favorite dancers to use at SFB.) I also noticed that choreographers like Morris are attracted not only to talent but also to dancers who exude passionate, fun-loving creative energy.      

You’re probably thinking, “Sure, but being funny, courteous and kind won’t get you more performances of Odette/Odile.” That’s true. I’ve seen people—usually exceptional dancers who can afford it—backstab and throw tantrums and still get the opening nights. But I’ve found that they’re often unhappy. And since companies are ultimately businesses, unprofessional behavior can affect the longevity of a dancer’s career.

 

Taking the high road does not guarantee professional success. But people notice when you make the right choices. I watched the way my role models behaved, and thanks to their influence, I’m laughing every day and staying positive in the face of frustration. It may not always be easy, but it’s worth it.

 

My Ballerina Ideal
Four dancers on their professional role models

 

Julie Kent, principal, American Ballet Theatre: “When I was a student dancing as a super with the New York City Ballet, Patricia McBride was so patient and welcoming with me and the other young girls. Now I try to be the same way after performances. There are children and young performers who have invested so much time watching, so I give them the courtesy of a few minutes of my time.”

Christine Shevchenko, corps de ballet, ABT: “I admire Julie Kent, because she’s consistently polite and very caring, especially with fans. She’ll always wait and sign autographs and take pictures.”

 

Martha Chamberlain, principal, Pennsylvania Ballet: “When I first joined the company, I was struck by the way Leslie Carothers kept the atmosphere very light in the studio. It relieved some of the everyday pressures of being a ballet dancer. She taught me that in this career, no one will die if you make a mistake, so relax a little.”

Vanessa Zahorian, principal, San Francisco Ballet: “I admired the way Muriel Maffre managed to steer clear of backstage cattiness. She never showed a competitive streak, and she would never talk about other people or gossip.”

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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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