Ready For Takeoff

If Adji Cissoko hadn’t failed a simple test at age 6, she might never have become a dancer.

In Germany, Cissoko’s homeland, children routinely get a medical examination before entering elementary school. “I had difficulties when the doctor asked me to make a circle while reciting a certain sentence,” she recalls. “He told my mother it would improve my coordination and spatial awareness if I took dance.”

That was 1997. Today, Cissoko, 20, has just completed her first season with the National Ballet of Canada. The company’s artistic director, Karen Kain, has high hopes for her. Cissoko, however, is not your average budding professional, nor has her journey been without a few bumps. At 5’ 9”, she’s tall. A short torso, long limbs and a lean build make her look even taller. As Cissoko acknowledges, learning to control such an expansive body and to move at speed are continuing challenges.

And there’s more. Cissoko is of African descent, a woman aiming for ballet’s stratosphere in a traditional art form that still struggles to adapt to the realities of a multicultural world. Cissoko’s West African father, a musician, came to Germany as a young man from French-speaking Senegal. Her mother, a nurse, is German and white. Cissoko says her lankiness comes straight from her father’s side. She attributes her leanness as much to genes as to the grueling work. “I eat a lot,” Cissoko says reassuringly in careful, German-accented English. (She also speaks French and Spanish, and understands Senegalese.)

Toronto audiences have had early opportunities to appreciate Cissoko’s somewhat raw but unmistakable talent. Apart from her height and color, Cissoko stands out for the concentrated intensity, energy and sense of purpose she invests in whatever she dances, while still seeming natural and spontaneous. Depending on the choreography, her arms can float delicately or slice through space like a knife. Above all, the sheer pleasure she takes in dancing—much more than a warm smile—is palpable. It’s a joy she clearly strives to share.

As a child, Cissoko began weekly free-form movement classes at the Munich Ballet Academy. Her teachers spotted an unusual talent and she soon moved into formal Vaganova-based ballet training. Year by year, her dance schedule intensified to the point that she had to complete her academic studies in night school.

In 2009 she traveled to Switzerland to compete in the Prix de Lausanne. She did not make the finals, but she had what turned out to be a fateful meeting: Karen Kain (president of the jury that year) was waiting for a train to Geneva when she spotted Cissoko on the platform. “I’d noted Adji’s talent, even if it was clear she hadn’t got used to the length of her legs yet,” says Kain, in her day also considered a tall dancer. “I knew how she must be feeling, so I went up and told her how good I thought she was and not to be discouraged.”

After Lausanne, Konstanze Vernon, founder of the Munich school, sent Cissoko’s video to the School of American Ballet, where she was accepted for a summer intensive. “I was trained in a Russian Vaganova style and all of a sudden I was having to move so fast,” Cissoko remembers. “It was a difficult adjustment.” So for a change during her New York stay, Cissoko took class at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. “Adji only did barre,” says JKO principal Franco De Vita, “but it was clear she was quite exceptional. I followed my instincts and offered her a full scholarship.”

Cissoko spent just a year at JKO but made a strong impression. “Adji is disciplined, dedicated, learns fast and never missed a class,” says De Vita. “She was the perfect student.” In fact, she impressed her teachers so much that faculty member Raymond Lukens picked her to dance a solo in his staging of the tarantella from Bournonville’s Napoli for JKO’s year-end performance.

JKO students often set their sights on ABT II and according to Australian-born Aaron Smyth, then a classmate, “there was some surprise” that Cissoko was not hired. “Adji has very good musicality and a lovely quality in her dancing. Also with those beautiful long legs, she stretches and leaps to beyond.” On top of that, Cissoko was popular with fellow students, described by Smyth as “wonderful” and “a delight.”

De Vita explains that ABT II was looking for a short dancer. “It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a spot for a tall girl,” adds Lukens, “but as we always try to explain to students, it’s not about their ability. There are other issues that can get in the way.” Cissoko seems to have been listening. “I like to stay open-minded,” she says. ”I knew it was going to be hard because of my height. You have to face the realities of a dance career.”

She was offered positions at The Washington Ballet, Boston Ballet II and Dresden SemperOper Ballett, but she auditioned in Toronto at her mother’s suggestion. The National Ballet held the appeal of an exceptionally wide-ranging repertoire from an iconic Sleeping Beauty to the outright avant-gardism of Aszure Barton, Crystal Pite and Marie Chouinard. And, of course, she had already met the company’s boss on that Swiss train platform.

Kain was impressed by Cissoko’s “huge progress” since Lausanne and did not view her height—or anything else—as an impediment. “It may not appeal to all directors,” Kain says frankly, “but I love having so many interesting types here—size, shape, skin color. Frankly, I don’t even notice that Adji is a dancer ‘of color.’”

Cissoko experienced one kind of culture shock when she moved from Munich to the feverish pace of New York, but she was still in a school environment. The transition into a company in another new city brought its own challenges. “As first-year corps I was afraid I’d be standing around in pretty poses, but we dance a lot,” she says. “At the beginning it was almost overwhelming.” Her first assignment was Balanchine’s Serenade, a work that exalts the female corps. Then came pieces by James Kudelka, a former National Ballet artistic director. “I was in Snowflakes and Flowers in his Nutcracker and understudied one of the fairies in Cinderella,” Cissoko recalls. “There are difficult, fast combinations in each, very specific musicality, and the coordination was hard to find, being so tall, trying to control all of that.”

National Ballet staff, however, try to keep a watchful eye. Says Kain, who met with Cissoko her first week to check how she was settling in, “I really want Adji to get a strong foundation and a sense of the support of her colleagues. She’ll need time to gain confidence and control of her body, but there’s something wonderful about her. I’m sure choreographers will want to use her unique talent.”

Senior ballet mistress Mandy-Jayne Richardson, who works directly with the corps, says she tries to give as much individual attention as she can, but the reality, as Cissoko acknowledges, is that a dancer also has to take personal responsibility. “You have to develop a certain independence and look out for yourself,” Cissoko says.

Despite her admirable work ethic and extraordinary facility, National Ballet staff are cautious about pushing Cissoko too fast, although they did have her understudy the demanding Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote. “There’s tremendous strength and a good base in her dancing,” says Richardson, “but with such long legs she needs time to coordinate everything. She’s having to work at a very fast pace, and we don’t want her to get injured.”

For the first time in her life, Cissoko is living alone, in a small apartment near Toronto’s colorful Italian neighborhood. “It’s good to be able to come home, relax and have some quiet time,” she says. She’s also enjoying the city. “People are so helpful. I lost my wallet and somebody found it and called me right away.” As her talent matures, Cissoko is likely to have plenty of opportunities beyond Toronto, but NBC, where several JKO graduates have begun their careers, certainly hopes she’ll make Toronto home. Says Richardson: “We’re really lucky to have her. There’s no doubt Adji has a big future.”

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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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