Joy Womack in "Don Quixote." Photo by Kyoungjin Kim, Courtesy Universal Ballet.

After Careers in Moscow and Seoul, Joy Womack Looks to Expand Her Horizons

Joy Womack is no stranger to the road less traveled. As the first American graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and first American woman to join the Bolshoi Ballet, the California native is accustomed to going out on a limb. Now at 24, after spending last season as a principal dancer with the Universal Ballet in Seoul, South Korea, she is taking a leave of absence and is back in Moscow with a revamped perspective and an impressive bucket list. We caught up with Womack over the phone to hear about her move from Russia to Korea and back again, and how life has changed since venturing on her own.


You trained at the Kirov Academy in Washington, DC, before going to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. How did your training experience in Russia differ from ballet school in America?

I think the biggest difference is that at school in Russia, we performed all the time. I danced my first principal roles at 17, and was always happiest when teachers pushed me. It was hard sometimes, to always be known as the token American in Russia. You get put in a box, and it's hard to be seen beyond that. But it served me well in the beginning. I could turn, and stood out from the crowd for my technical strengths. That's how I wound up being taken into the company, too.


Womack in rehearsal for "Giselle." Photo by Kyoungjin Kim, Courtesy Universal Ballet.


Why did you join the Kremlin Ballet Theatre of Moscow, and what happened next?

I joined the company because my life at the Bolshoi had become too political, and I wanted to focus on the work again. In the beginning, it was wonderful. We worked all the time, without a free day. I performed tons of principal roles and had an amazing coach. But I was always encouraged to compete, both with myself and my colleagues. After awhile, I realized that my worth was always based on my last performance. I also started noticing that my weaknesses—my port de bras, for example—were never addressed. I thought, if this is the top, what's the point? It had all just become too routine. I just couldn't live to hear "good job" as the measure of my personal worth any more. It was definitely a hard decision to leave, though, because I was afraid of seeming ungrateful after all the opportunities that I was given.

What did you hope to find in another company?

I wanted to find a company that would push me to overcome my limitations, and that would make room for me outside of my "American in Russia" box.

I performed in some galas over a layoff, and met dancers whose approach was different to mine. They were fulfilled by the work, instead of by the constant hope of promotion. They had social lives. And they danced other styles.


Womack and Minwoo Kang in "Don Quixote." Photo by Kyoungjin Kim, courtesy Universal Ballet.

Did dancers in Seoul work differently?

Yes! I really admired their work ethic. In a way, it was a lot like going back to school. I always thought that if I could make it in Asia, then I'd really have achieved something.

It was a whirlwind season with the Universal Ballet. We worked in the studio all day. I was definitely influenced by the other dancers' kindness, humility and respect for time in the studio. I also learned to never take a rehearsal for granted. My main coach was Russian, so the overall style didn't change. But interpreting a role became more of a discussion, not just: it's my way or the highway.

We encouraged and pushed each other. But we also celebrated each other for being individuals. And the group was much more international. I didn't feel like the token American anymore. One of my partners was Chinese, and over 6 feet tall. It was nice to finally feel embraced for my individuality.

Why are you leaving Universal Ballet?

I am so grateful for my time in Seoul, but in the end I couldn't imagine planting roots there. There are so many things that I'm interested in, and it was hard to explore those channels from so far away. We also worked on a schedule where we prepared each production for two months before performing. In the end, I was hungry for more stage time.

In Russia, I was 23 and obsessed with work. During my last season with Kremlin, I'd just gone through a divorce, and had to see my ex every day in the studio. I became numb to the emotional side of dancing. After a season in Seoul, I've learned to not be as consumed with defining my self-worth by how much I weigh that day, or with what a coach thinks of me. But with that new freedom comes a lot of new challenges and uncertainties. I'm in the process of trying to figure out what that means for my career.

Leaving Seoul was also a financial choice. The past year with Universal Ballet finally allowed me to save bit of money. In Russia I only earned $200 a month. It's was a crazy feeling to finally be able to buy the everyday things I needed, and it made it possible to have a life outside of the studio in Seoul. But it still wasn't enough to buy airline tickets to stay connected with the rest of the dance world, and with my family in the States.


Womack in rehearsal at Universal Ballet. Photo by Kyoungjin Kim, courtesy Universal Ballet.

What have you done since leaving Seoul?

The beauty of not being attached to a company is that I'm able to handpick my own coaches and hone specific aspects of my dancing. I'm back in Moscow working with the coach Ilya Kuznetsov, and with dancers from the Bolshoi. Since leaving Korea, I've traveled to Italy almost every month to work with the coach Claudia Zaccari, former prima ballerina with the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, who has become a mentor and big presence in my life. She's introduced me to a lot of people who are advising me to take my time to figure out what I want in a next company position.

I've really enjoyed preparing for guesting opportunities that I've been able to take on. I'm working with my old partner Mikhail Martynuk to prepare a performance tour this November and December in Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. I also have a close relationship the National Capital Ballet in Australia, where I've recently danced some gala performances.

Any roles you dream of dancing?

I'd love the chance to learn more dramatic ballets, like Onegin or Romeo and Juliet. And I hope to work with more contemporary choreographers. I'm eager for chances to push my boundaries and discover new sides of myself.

I'm approaching this time as an opportunity to be diligent about preparing for the next step. If I want more responsibility as a principal dancer, I need to be ready to step up to the plate. The people I'm working with now encourage me to try new styles and to not be so attached to my Russian technique. It's been so freeing to explore how these new approaches feel onstage.


Womack and Ming Ma in "Giselle." Photo by Kyoungjin Kim, courtesy Universal Ballet.

Are there any other goals you'd like to achieve?

My focus has definitely started to shift toward my future. I was accepted at the Russian State Theatre Arts Ballet Pedagogy and Choreography program in Moscow, to become a certified teacher in four years alongside my dance career. It's been amazing so far to delve so deeply into the history and mechanics of dance training, and I can't wait to see where it leads.

I'm very interested in giving back to the next generation. My path hasn't always been easy. I've auditioned a lot, and have dealt with a ton of rejection. I want to be there for dancers who struggle to make it professionally. That's why I have a YouTube channel—to help people who have questions and to shed light on what it's really like to be a professional. I'm also very excited to be coaching a student for the Beijing International Ballet Competition this October. It's been such a privilege to work with her and see her progress!

I'm not sure how long my career as a dancer will last. Hopefully when I do find a place in another company, I'll be a better, stronger, version of myself. But I've learned that performance satisfaction doesn't last forever, and that I have to find fulfillment somewhere else. But for right now, I'm happy. And I'm thrilled to finally be able to say that.

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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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