Joy Womack

Sergei Gavrilov, Courtesy Joy Womack

Catching Up With Joy Womack on Two Upcoming Films Based on Her Life, Plus How She's Managed in Quarantine

Many ballet films canonize the careers of dancers long retired from the stage. But that's not the case for Joy Womack, who at just 26 has not one, but two films in the works based on her life. Womack made a splash early on as the first American to graduate from the domestic program of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in over 60 years, and the first American woman to join the Bolshoi Ballet. After whirlwind careers as a principal with the Kremlin Ballet Theatre of Moscow and South Korea's Universal Ballet, Womack has just completed her first season as an artist with Boston Ballet.

Both upcoming films cover Womack's years in Russia. Joy Womack: The White Swan, a documentary made by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov, debuted at Cannes Marché in June. It is currently in post-production. The second project, Joika, is a feature film directed by James Napier Robertson starring Thomasin McKenzie as Womack. Production has been halted due to the pandemic, but filming is rescheduled to start in early 2021 in New Zealand.

We caught up with Womack in Redding, California, where she's just relocated with her boyfriend, to hear all about how she's managing during the coronavirus shutdown, and what it's been like to imagine her life played out on the big screen.


Your first season with Boston Ballet was cut short due to the pandemic. How have you been managing since then?

It was a hard start to the year, adjusting to the American system and being demoted, since I'm used to working as a principal dancer. I was just starting to get into my stride when everything shut down. I've spent the past four months quarantined on a ranch with my boyfriend in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. About a month ago, my boyfriend needed to move out to Redding. I've been able to get back into the studio here, and just helped stage Sleeping Beauty for a local school.

What has it been like having the chance to dance again, after such a long break?

It's very scary, to see the ruins of your body and technique. I did fouettés for the first time today, and cried. They weren't the best, but I just had such a feeling of gratitude for having the space to be able to try them.

One thing that's really challenging about this quarantine is that I hadn't really realized how much motivation it takes to do something for yourself. It's so much easier when you're in a community, or working with a teacher. That's something I've really taken out of this experience: Not taking that time with like-minded people for granted, ever again.

Of the two movies in the works right now, Joy Womack: The White Swan, the documentary based on your life, is much further along. How did the project first come to be?

My now ex-husband was very good friends with a movie producer, Dina Burlis, who heard about my story and asked me to do an interview. They filmed me for nearly 10 years, from my last year of school up until last year. Coming in to the company from the school and making a rapid rise was very unprecedented, especially for an American. So they decided to capture all of the pressure that I was under, and what was happening in my life. I'm a little nervous for it to come out, because I look at that footage now, and think I'm a much better dancer now and much more settled. They caught me at a very nitty-gritty, formative, kind of ugly-duckling phase in my life.

What was it like being followed by a camera for so many years?

Russia is a country that has a lot of press, so we always had a camera crew or something in the studio. I was used to it. Dina and Sergey were there for big events, like when I had my debut in Swan Lake and then a week later I debuted in Don Quixote, with just two weeks to get ready for both. I got promoted after I danced Swan Lake, and had this imposter syndrome; I felt like I was getting a lot of opportunities that I didn't deserve. It was a very interesting phase in my life, and in essence it's a movie about mental health. I sometimes don't recognize the girl that's speaking in those interviews.

Joy Womack, in a purple tutu, stands in tendu derriere crois\u00e9 on the left looking up at her left hand. Mikhail Martynyuk, in blue harem pants, kneels with his left leg extended on the right side, his right arm gesturing toward his chest.

Womack with Mikhail Martynyuk during the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 2017

Alisa Aslanova, Courtesy Womack

Let's talk about Joika. When were you first approached about a biopic?

At first it was a Christian movie company that wanted to do a story based on my life as a Christian. Then another company bought it, and finally Anonymous Content renegotiated a deal and sent a writer to follow me. He came to see me perform Swan Lake in Australia, and then followed me around in Los Angeles and I showed him around Moscow. They got me to agree to the film when he insisted that they didn't want to make a movie about me, but about ballet, and that he wanted it to be very genuine. I was all for that because I think the only way to make ballet more mainstream is to have more of it in Hollywood.

How involved are you in the production process?

I was very involved in the writing process, and I'm hoping to be involved as a consultant when they're filming. I'd also like to work on the choreography, and potentially as a dance double for Thomasin. For now, I've used my network to find her a coach in New Zealand. With COVID, we'll see what ends up happening.

Many people don't have these kinds of projects made about them until they're much further along in their careers. What does it feel like to be starting your new chapter with Boston Ballet, while simultaneously being at the center of this whole other world?

In a way, I haven't even wanted to think about the films. I think it would be a tragedy if the best part of my life was behind me. It was a really hard time, and now I'm struggling with figuring out what I should do next, how I can dance better, how I can dance more of the things I want to dance, how I can change the dance world in a way that makes it a healthier, safer and more exciting place. It's been a struggle. But I think there's a reason that COVID happened, in the sense that I need to reexamine my priorities. There are some exciting things in the works, but I don't think I'm a ballet dancer in the traditional sense of following any prescribed path. I think my road will be very different going forward.

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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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