The Prime of Maria Riccetto

An artist who, surprisingly, often slips under the radar, she gives some of the company’s most memorable performances. Petite, with long arms and beautifully etched legs and feet, she dances with technical strength and an innately dramatic quality that is palpable. With her natural, unaffected beauty, the Uruguayan-born dancer looks like she could be one of the bold, determined heroines in a novel by Isabel Allende. She has an unmistakable authority in both classical and contemporary works—and that is a rare thing in the ballet world.


“Maria has a very appealing presence,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “She brings a sense of self and a sense of humor to the company. She also brings the ability to genuinely support her colleagues.”


Although she dances her share of soloist parts, Riccetto has made an unforgettable impression in many principal roles. In the prelude of Les Sylphides, she draws a delicate pianissimo quality from the steps. She brings a special vulnerability to Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun and in Mozartiana,
she understands the tricky dynamics of off-balance adagio and allegro movement. And her Giselle has a haunting gentleness.


Riccetto is particularly fond of the Romantic repertoire. “I love to move slowly and pay attention to every detail,” she says. “My port de bras and the way I use my neck seem to come naturally in adagio movement.”


The daughter of a rancher, Riccetto began dancing at age 6 at a local school in Montevideo. Her mother loved all kinds of dance and ballet classes were a way to keep Riccetto occupied while her parents worked in the late afternoons. After a few years, her teacher urged her to audition for the national ballet school. By age 12, she was an apprentice at the national ballet company, while continuing her training at the school. “My days were crazy,” says Riccetto. “There was a lot of pressure, but at that age you feel like you can do it all.”


When Riccetto was 14, University of North Carolina School of the Arts offered her a scholarship. At first she was excited, but then got cold feet. “A month before I was due to leave, I was crying every night and telling my parents, ‘I’m not ready,’ ” she says. Riccetto ended up turning the scholarship down. At 17, when she grew frustrated with the Uruguayan company’s bureaucracy, she finally went to UNCSA.


Upon her arrival in the U.S., she knew three phrases in English: “My name is Maria. Nice to meet you. Please speak slowly.” It was a period of adjustment. “I was very naive, but I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. “I am a lyrical dancer, but I learned to move faster without losing my roots.”


When graduation approached, Riccetto traveled to New York to audition. Homesick for her tight-knit family and her country, she set the stakes high, trying out for ABT—but not expecting to receive an offer. “I said if I don’t get into a big company, I go home,” she recalls. To her surprise, ABT asked her back for a second audition, then offered her options: joining as an apprentice for the spring season in 1999 or as a corps member that August. She chose the latter, so she could dance in Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante, coached by Melissa Hayden, for UNCSA’s graduation performance.


“People say a lot has to do with talent,” says Riccetto. “I think a lot has to do with timing and luck.” She joined ABT when a number of short girls had left, so she was immediately thrown into the front row of the corps. At 5’ 4”, she didn’t lack for partners. The company had several talented short men,
like Herman Cornejo, so she was quickly dancing Sleeping Beauty’s Bluebird Pas de Deux and Olga in Onegin.


“I love ballets where I can tell a story,” she says. “That’s what I was made for. As time goes by, you realize better how to tell it. How are you going to dance Giselle when you’ve never had heartbreak? Life experience gets you ready to do those roles.”


Riccetto has had many talks with McKenzie about broadening her repertoire. “I asked, ‘Why don’t you consider me for this?’ He has a vision, whether you agree with it or not,” she says. “I am certain that if you work every day like you’ve never worked before, it pays off. That’s what happened with Giselle.”  Having already danced Giselle in Uruguay, coached by Julio Bocca, she was prepared when other dancers’ injuries gave her an opportunity to assume the role during the 2009 Met season.


Riccetto is loved in the ABT family. Her close friend Sascha Radetsky praises her blend of “graciousness and feistiness.” He adds: “I think Maria’s wisdom and perspective on life makes her dancing special. A lot of living is packed into her 30 years.” Like McKenzie, he praises her attitude towards her colleagues: “She’s dedicated, supportive of others, fun to be around, inspiring in her dancing and her conduct.”


For a long time, Riccetto was always thinking, “I want to be a principal, I want to be a principal.” Now, she has made peace with dancing exquisitely as a soloist and developing other areas of her life. She has a boyfriend in Uruguay and a burgeoning business there called Primma, a dancewear company that is co-run by her sister, a former dancer. “I know my dancing isn’t going to be forever,” Riccetto says. “There was no place to buy leotards and tights in my country. We manufacture everything there, and we are putting together a showroom.” She loves to ride horses on the ranch at home and does work for a Uruguayan charity organization called Reaching U. Since her mother died six years ago, she finds it hard to watch sad movies: “Now only stupid movies to make me laugh.”


Riccetto hopes more roles lie ahead. “I want to be recognized onstage for who I am and for my work,“ she says, “not because I asked for a role. Everything I have done until now was because I deserved it.”


And when she dances, the audience deserves—and gets—the best.

Joseph Carman is the author of Round About the Ballet and is a Pointe contributor.

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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.

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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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