Jahna Frantziskonis photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Taking Chances: San Francisco Ballet's Jahna Frantziskonis

This is Pointe's February/March 2017 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Most vacations don't turn into the job of a lifetime. But that's exactly what happened when Jahna Frantziskonis took company class at San Francisco Ballet in the spring of 2015.

“I had never been to San Francisco or seen the company besides on video," explains Frantziskonis, 23. She had come to the city to visit her younger brother, Elias, an SFB School student at the time. “He said, 'Just come, take a class, see what happens.' " Less than a week after she got back to Seattle, where she was a second-year corps dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, she had received an invitation to join the SFB corps.

“It was very unexpected," she says, seeming to still marvel at the outcome nearly two years later. But artistic director Helgi Tomasson confirms that hiring her was no fluke. He immediately noticed three qualities every SFB dancer needs: stage presence, musicality and versatility. “I could see her fitting very well into the repertory we have, in the classical, neoclassic and contemporary," he says of her accidental audition.


Frantziskonis with Benjamin Griffiths in Balanchine's "Rubies" at PNB. Photo Courtesy PNB.



Frantziskonis proved him right. Her first season was filled with debuts, from the first cast of Mark Morris' Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, to Prayer in Balanchine's Coppélia, to her season-ending success as Olga in John Cranko's Onegin. Throughout, she enchanted audiences with effortless turns and sprightly jumps, sensitive musicality and soubrette charm—not to mention enormous, expressive eyes that rival Audrey Hepburn's.

While the roles were new to her, the spotlight was not. At PNB, she had already performed the principal pas de deux in Balanchine's “Rubies," the pas de trois in “Emeralds" and Cupid in Alexei Ratmansky's Don Quixote, and created roles in Justin Peck's Debonair and Twyla Tharp's Waiting at the Station.

“It's so natural for Jahna," says PNB artistic director Peter Boal of her technique. “There are some people you like to take credit for having coached, but you realize that anyone could have done it—they were going to get there on their own."

A Tucson, Arizona, native, Frantziskonis has been single-minded about ballet since her first toddler class at the YMCA. At age 5 she enrolled at Ballet Arts Tucson and trained with owner and former Cleveland Ballet principal Mary Beth Cabana, then finished high school in three years in order to train in PNB School's Professional Division at 16.

“I always felt, from the very beginning, that she was very, very special," recalls Cabana, who also trained PNB soloist Margaret Mullin and Houston Ballet demi-soloist Aaron Daniel Sharratt. “She showed a particular intelligence for ballet, and she was very open to expressing herself within her dancing. You could see that every fiber in her being really loved what she was doing."

Frantziskonis credits Cabana with developing her solid technical base and her enthusiasm for risk-taking. “I'm not a very scared dancer, and I think that's why. She just gave you the freedom to try."

She also took a variety of classes, including tap, Fosse-style jazz and contemporary dance. A decade of piano lessons, first in classical and then in improvisational jazz, put musicality literally at her fingertips. “I can recognize structure in difficult pieces," she explains. “Sometimes I'll hear different notes, and I'll base my musicality off of that."


Frantziskonis with max Cauthorn in Christopher Wheeldon's "Rush" with SFB. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

In spite of her skill and talent, the 5' 2 3/4" Frantziskonis had a sizable obstacle to overcome. “Around the time I started dancing on pointe," she remembers, “teachers and peers started telling me that my height would hold me back from a professional career." Discouraged but determined, she put in extra time with Cabana to refine her feet, strengthen her turnout and create the longest possible lines. “I really encouraged her to think about herself as if she was an Amazon, to dance really big and bold," Cabana says. “And to understand that she had so many other qualities to be a wonderful artist."

Boal noticed those qualities when Frantziskonis performed in the Professional Division recital. “How she held the stage, her presence—it made me do a double take," he recalls. He took her under his wing, and the two became close as he cast and coached her in increasingly significant roles. “I really looked on Jahna from the very start as a future principal dancer with the company," he says, so her departure was a shock.

By nature adventurous and curious, and hungry for new artistic opportunities, Frantziskonis was eager to take her chances on SFB. But she also felt a deep attachment to the director who had shaped her as a dancer. “I knew that Peter would change my mind if I told him that I had a job offer, because I love him," she says. “But I decided this was an opportunity that I don't know will ever come again." So she signed her SFB contract before telling him of the offer.

“He took it well," she recalls, “and then ended up calling me back into his office to tell me that he was really upset." Boal was disappointed to lose such a promising dancer, but he also knows it's the nature of the business. “Directors have to recognize that dancers call some of the shots, and that they have a voice and choices," he says. “I love it when I'm included. But you want the best for somebody, and I'm happy for her success. It was the right decision."


Frantziskonis with her brother, Elias. Photo Courtesy Frantziskonis.

Nothing, however, had prepared the admittedly starstruck Frantziskonis for dancing alongside idols like Maria Kochetkova, Yuan Yuan Tan, Frances Chung and Lorena Feijoo. “When I did Olga, Yuan Yuan was Tatiana," she says. “I was preparing backstage and I had this moment of, Whoa, where are you right now?"

She's learned to talk herself through those stressful moments, and adjusted to life in a larger company (PNB has 47 dancers, while SFB has 73). But learning the sheer volume of choreography can still feel overwhelming. SFB performs about 30 Nutcracker shows annually, followed by a five-month, eight-program season; 2017 brings three full-lengths and five mixed bills, including four world premieres.

“It's known as the 'SFB thing,' " she says of the company's notoriously fast rehearsal process. She's found that there's no easy way to get all that rep in her body and mind: “You seriously just do it."

Principal dancer Lorena Feijoo, who tends to keep an eye on Frantziskonis when teaching company class, has faith that she will meet the challenges, and master them. “Jahna has something you can't teach," observes Feijoo. “She is an artist." Thinking back to last season's principal role in Liam Scarlett's dark, aggressive Fearful Symmetries, she says that “when Jahna walked onstage, she was on fire. It was like an explosion. For a corps member of that age to do that, it shows you that she's a little ahead of the game."

The next time Frantziskonis finds time for a vacation, she'd love to visit Elias in the Netherlands, where he is a trainee at Dutch National Ballet. But don't expect another job change.

“I get to do what I love every day," she says of life at SFB. “That's my biggest goal: What's making me happy, pursue it. Right now, ballet is really giving me that."

Latest Posts


Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
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."

Editors' Picks