Your Training

New York’s New Preprofessional Companies
New York’s Joffrey Ballet School recently launched a preprofessional company for its “Joffrey Ballet” program, and plans to start two more companies for its other two divisions (which include “Classical Ballet,” led by Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov, and “Jazz and Contemporary Dance”). 


Each of the three companies will be completely separate from the others. The dancers will be chosen from the ranks of their respective programs through auditions run as objectively as possible in order to prepare the dancers for professional open calls.


The directors hope to mimic the second company experience, helping students make the leap to becoming professional dancers. “We try our best to run the company like a professional troupe,” says


Davis Robertson, director of the “Joffrey Ballet” program’s company, “but at the same time we act as mentors and give the dancers honest critiques of their technique, presentation, movement quality and professionalism, as well as an understanding ear.” His troupe has already performed five new works, including ballets by Julie Bour, formerly of Ballet Preljocaj, and Africa Guzman, associate director of Spain’s Compañia Nacional de Danza. For more, visit


Ivy League Ballet
Getting an Ivy League education no longer means you have to give up performing. Several top universities, including Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, host student-run companies for classically trained dancers. And they’re more than just clubs for amateurs—they boast professional-caliber dancers and distinguished choreographers.


“I like that I get to be in an academically challenging program—but also dance as much as I want,” says Harvard Ballet Company’s current director Hazel Lever, a sophomore majoring in history and science with a secondary major in global health and health policy. 


None of the companies offer training as rigorous as an official dance major. But members receive regular open classes and biannual performance opportunities, often dancing in work set or created on them by esteemed choreographers. Harvard Ballet Company—which currently has about 50 active members, including dancers who’ve performed with Zurich Ballet, Boston Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet and ABT II—performed a new ballet by Peter Pucci and brought in Deborah Wingert to set Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet this fall. Columbia Ballet Collaborative has danced premieres by Matthew Neenan, Emery LeCrone and Adam Hendrickson, and the 24 dancers have been joined by guest artists such as New York City Ballet principal Amar Ramasar. Princeton University Ballet’s 19 dancers have performed work by Christopher Fleming and Susan Jaffe. All three companies also offer opportunities for students to choreograph.


If you’re visiting campuses this spring, catch the companies in action. Columbia Ballet Collaborative performs April 9 and 10. Harvard Ballet Company performs April 15 and 16. Princeton University Ballet will perform the week of May 2. Find out more at


In Makarova’s Footsteps
No matter your technical level, you can now learn directly from teachers who’ve trained the Kirov’s top dancers in the studios where Makarova, Baryshnikov and Nureyev once took class. St. Petersburg Travel, Inc., offers a unique trip for students, teachers and ballet enthusiasts to attend the annual Vaganova Method Conference and Demonstration at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. The 10-day tour includes master classes taught by Vaganova Academy teachers, plus lectures on dance theory, ballet dancer psychology, nutrition and injury prevention. In addition, participants get to observe regular classes at the Academy, meet with the teachers for question-and-answer sessions and attend performances by the Kirov Ballet and Academy students. The trip also includes tours of St. Petersburg’s historic sites, palaces and museums. The reservation deadline is May 1. To learn more, go to


Get Discovered
The end of the school year means spring performances. That can be a chance to impress company directors. But what signals to them that an advanced student is ready to be a professional? Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater shares his advice as students from the Academy of Dance, Official School of The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago prepare to perform Sleeping Beauty May 20–22.


Pointe: How many current Joffrey dancers came through the Academy?
Ashley Wheater:
In the two years since it opened, I’ve hired four into the company.

PT: When you attend a student performance, what do you want to see?
AW: That they understand the ballet they’re performing. The classics are hard and demanding because if you make a mistake, we all know it. But you can’t forget that technique is just a means to an end. Aurora should burst onto the stage with joy, knowing that everyone is there to celebrate her 16th birthday. Think about why those particular steps are in there. Doing them nicely is just the beginning.

PT: What do you look for in students you’re considering hiring?
AW: You’ve got to be able to apply the style the choreographer is asking for. I don’t just look for talent, but how dancers learn—both the steps and the music. They have to know how to be a corps dancer. Are they aware of where they are on the stage? Do they remember corrections? I also look for people who are really versatile, and who show they understand that all movement comes from the spine.

PT: What makes your eye gravitate to one student over another onstage?
AW:  My eye always goes to the dancer who really knows how to breathe with the music. Even if she’s moving absolutely together with a corps of 32 people, she always stands out.

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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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