A Fresh Prince

There are moments when a dancer and a role match up in a way that sends a shiver through the audience. During Chase Finlay’s first performances of George Balanchine’s Apollo last year, the similarities between the New York City Ballet dancer and the young god were arresting: Both were beautiful but rough-hewn, testing the limits of their considerable powers. Finlay was green—just 20 at the time—but the purity of his line, the plasticity of his jump and the gracious nobility of his carriage softened any unpolished moment. And beyond his raw excitement about standing alone at center stage, he exuded real, magnetic authority. As Apollo, Finlay gave us a glimpse of the artist he might become.

 Now 21, Finlay has turned many heads—and not just because he is (as it has become customary to note) six feet, blond and classically handsome. Singled out for his charisma and technique, he’s had, like many young NYCB dancers before him, extraordinary opportunities early in his career. But whether a dancer continues to grow after sink-or-swim tests like Apollo can be a toss-up. Still something of an attractive cipher onstage, Finlay is just beginning to invent himself. Apollo’s path to Mount Olympus was predestined; the ultimate extent of Finlay’s ascent is up to him.

Finlay, who grew up near New York City in the affluent suburb of Fairfield, Connecticut, discovered ballet the way many boys do: He followed his older sister to the studio. “I was really into lacrosse at the time, and I thought taking a couple of ballet lessons might help,” he says. But at age 7, after seeing a performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker in Stamford, Connecticut—featuring several School of American Ballet students—he decided to train in earnest. “When the Chinese guy came out in the second act and started doing split jumps, I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ” he remembers. “I turned to my mom and said, ‘I have to do this for real.’ The athletic aspect of it was so appealing.”

Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East, remembers watching Finlay two years later in that same Nutcracker production. “You couldn’t miss him,” she says. “Of course he was adorable, this little blond boy, but he was also totally at ease up there.” By that time, Finlay and his sister (Page, who went on to dance with San Francisco Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre) were commuting to New York to train with Hoover at BAE. “Darla became a second mom to me,” Finlay says. “I was good friends with her son Trevor”—now a Boston Ballet II dancer—“so I was always over at her apartment hanging out. She took me under her wing, in ballet class and outside of it.” Finlay was obviously gifted, but Hoover wasn’t about to let him coast through his training. “She kicked my butt, which I needed,” Finlay says, laughing.

After several years studying Balanchine technique with Hoover, the teenage Finlay faced an important decision: take a contract with American Ballet Theatre’s second company or enter the School of American Ballet in the hopes of eventually joining NYCB. He chose SAB; it was a gutsy move. “At ABT, there’s a tendency to let young dancers sit in the corps for a while, wearing a bunch of funny costumes,” he says. “With the repertoire that NYCB does, I thought I’d get more exciting experience right off the bat, assuming I made it into the company.” At age 17, he became an NYCB apprentice.

Soon—remarkably soon—the roles started coming. Once Finlay was promoted to the corps in 2009, he danced featured parts in Robbins’ Interplay and 2 and 3 Part Inventions, Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and the pas de quatre from Peter Martins’ Swan Lake. A special highlight was Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, which Finlay performed with an otherwise all-principal cast. It was his first time partnering the majestic Sara Mearns, whom he’d idolized as a student.

Mearns was impressed by Finlay’s partnering. “He had great instincts,” she remembers, “and he really listened. That’s what you need—someone who’s there mentally and physically.” Though Finlay was initially in awe of Mearns, he soon found that the “intimidation factor” worked to his advantage. “Dancing with Sara is almost like a competition: She’s brilliant, and she pushes me,” he says. “But I push right back. I do well under pressure.” Onstage together, Mearns and Finlay crackle, feeding off that competitive energy.

Finlay stepped into the brightest of spotlights last spring, when, thanks in part to another dancer’s injury, he made his debut as Apollo. Though he was shocked to be given a chance at the role, Hoover wasn’t surprised. “Apollo was something I saw coming Chase’s way a long time ago,” she says. “He is Apollo—he just is. Before he even moves.” NYCB artistic director Peter Martins had no qualms about entrusting the part to Finlay. “He was obviously the right type,” Martins says. “The look, and the facility. I had every confidence in him. He was ready.”

With Mearns’ encouragement, Finlay studied tapes of Peter Boal, Nikolaj Hübbe, Jacques d’Amboise, Ib Andersen and Martins in the role, and worked intensely with Martins and coach Richard Tanner. He also learned to deal with some inevitable unpleasantness. “There were a lot of established guys who expected to get Apollo,” he says. “For a while, I was getting those sideways looks in the hall. It was uncomfortable.” He turned to principals Andrew Veyette and Amar Ramasar for support. “They’ve had my back since I joined the company,” he says. “They tell me when I look bad out there, but I like that they’re real with me. And they’ve been through similar things. They know what it’s like.”

Finlay’s Apollo debut was a smash. (“He shows the artist’s journey as an adventure story in which everything is new,” Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times.) A few months later, Martins promoted Finlay to soloist. “I was thrilled for him,” Mearns says, “but I was actually happy for me, too. I was like, yes—now we really get to dance together.”

With rave reviews and promotions comes a lot of pressure. It’s a feeling Mearns, who had her breakout performance in Swan Lake at age 19, is all too familiar with. “At this point, when you’re rising fast, there are so many distractions that can pull you away from ballet,” she says. “I learned, and Chase has to remember, never to lose focus. With a talent like Chase has, he can’t afford to veer away.”

But for the moment, Finlay is just enjoying the ride, and trying to “stay normal,” he says. Modeling stints for Abercrombie & Fitch and French Vogue aside, he insists he’s a regular guy. He’s a New York Giants fan who spends his days off watching football at sports bars. He plays the drums, and jams with fellow NYCB musicians Joaquin de Luz, Ask la Cour and Zachary Catazaro. And he still has dinner with Hoover frequently. “She knocks me down a peg when I need it,” he says.

NYCB dancers are notoriously loyal to Balanchine’s company, and Finlay is no exception. But he does dream of guesting opportunities at ABT, the Kirov or The Royal Ballet that would allow him to tackle big classical leads. “I love the rep I’m dancing at NYCB, but I’ve always seen myself as a classical dancer,” he says. “I don’t exactly want to be David Hallberg, but the path he went on? That would be pretty awesome.”

“Chase has more growing to do, but people will always notice him,” Mearns says. “How can you not? He’s the perfect prince. There are moments now when he’s intimidating to me.”

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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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