Juliet Doherty in a scene from High Strung Free Dance. Cos Aelenei, Courtesy GVN Releasing

"High Strung Free Dance" Star Juliet Doherty Shares Why She's Forging Her Own Career Path as a Dancer and Actress

For a classically trained ballerina, Juliet Doherty hasn't had the most conventional career. The New Mexico native, who was initially trained by her mother at her grandmother's studio, spent three years as Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular before heading to the San Francisco Ballet School, where she eventually became a trainee. But rather than join a company, Doherty has since pursued projects that blend her love of ballet and acting. In 2014 she worked alongside Tiler Peck in the Susan Stroman–directed musical Little Dancer, and later landed the lead role in the indie movie Driven to Dance.

Now, she's about to star in a major feature film: High Strung Free Dance, opening in movie theaters October 11. Doherty plays Barlow, a young ballerina who lands a spot in a new Broadway show called Free Dance. Along the way, a love triangle brews between Barlow, a hard-scrabble pianist named Charlie (Harry Jarvis) and the show's temperamental choreographer Zander (Thomas Doherty, no relation). Produced by Michael and Janeen Damian—the creators of 2016's High Strung starring Keenan Kampa—this dance-packed film features choreography by Tyce Diorio and SFB soloist Myles Thatcher.

We caught up with Doherty to talk about her experience making the movie, as well as her unique career path.

High Strung Free Dance has been in the works for a long time. How does it feel to finally see its release?

I'm super-thrilled, because we filmed it two years ago and so much has happened since then. I finally saw the film in its entirety last summer, but my family and friends haven't seen it yet, so I'm really excited.

How long did the filming process take?

We rehearsed for three weeks, creating a lot of content for scene transitions—there's dance scattered throughout to aid the storytelling, in all sorts of styles—as well as the 15-minute finale number. Myles Thatcher and Tyce Diorio teamed up on some things, and then choreographed other parts separately. Then we filmed for six weeks—five in Romania and then one week on location in New York City for all the exterior shots.

A ballerina balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg lifted high to the side. A young man is to her left, playing the piano.

Doherty and Harry Jarvis in a scene from High Strung Free Dance

JoBee, Courtesy GVN Releasing

What was it like on set? Was it hard to be in pointe shoes for so many hours?

When you're in a ballet company you have class and then have rehearsals and a performance. So in a way, being on set is similar in that you have to maintain your energy, make sure you're eating enough and checking in with your body. That said, we had three very hard back-to-back days when we were filming the 15-minute finale. Each day only focused on five minutes of choreography, but was 15 to 16 hours long—by the third day we were filming until 4 or 5 am, in pointe shoes! But Michael and Janeen took care of us and made sure we were getting enough breaks. And honestly, being in pointe shoes was never an issue for me on the long days—I found being in heels for long stretches much more difficult.

Your character Barlow is a ballet dancer trying to make it on Broadway. Can you explain what has led her to this point?

Barlow comes from a classical background—so far she's been a student, but she hasn't joined a ballet company. Her mother Oksana, played by Jane Seymour (who was in the first movie, too) is a really strict dance teacher and has all these dreams for her. But Barlow is at a point where she wants something new—she wants to be on Broadway. Getting cast in Free Dance is her first big break. But she's very naïve, and she has to learn quickly how the professional world works and develop a thick skin.

A young ballerina in shorts and high-heeled dance shoes auditions for a Broadway show. She is crouched on the floor with her weight on both hands, reaching her back leg behind her.

Doherty in the audition scene from High Strung Free Dance

Courtesy GVN Releasing

Your own mother was your ballet teacher. Was that helpful in your scenes with Jane Seymour?

My mom taught me until I was 14, but she's never been an overbearing stage mother. My parents have raised me to listen to my intuition. But I could relate—I remember going into rehearsals with my mom when I was younger and opposing everything she said. I tried to tap into that to make those scenes more authentic. And working with Jane was incredible—I learned so much from her.

Could you talk about your own transition from dancing to acting?

I'm a dancer first and foremost and have been since I was 3. But I've also been doing community theater since I was 6. After three years in Radio City, I decided to focus on ballet technique and moved to San Francisco School. But I was so used to being onstage, and I didn't perform there until our year-end presentation. It reminded me how much I missed musical theater. The year I became an SFB trainee I also booked the Susan Stroman musical Little Dancer. That's when I thought, Maybe I don't want to join a company right now. So the next year I left SFB, moved to Arizona, and was presented with the opportunity to film Driven to Dance, which is now on Netflix. Then High Strung came along six months later.

But I'm not really done with the classical world—I'm 22 now and I know it's a short window, so I go to class every day to maintain my technique. But there's something about musical theater and film and television where you can incorporate your voice with movement—I just feel so expressed.

A young ballerina stands center stage, lifting her right leg high to the side and reaching both arms up in fifth position. A female dancer to her right is running past her and another dancer to her left is in arabesque.

Doherty in the fial performance scene from High Strung Free Dance

JoBee, Courtesy GVN Releasing

You live in New York City now. How do you train for both your dancing and acting careers?

I take open class at Steps on Broadway—I like Willy Burman, Nancy Bielski, Lisa Lockwood and Karin Averty. I also work in one-on-one singing lessons with a voice coach as much as I can. For acting, I like to take group classes so that I can feed off the other actors, watch people and get ideas.

How much time do you spend going to auditions and castings?

It depends on the season. Right now there aren't a lot of auditions for musical theater, but there will be busy times where I have a casting every day, sometimes two a day. For instance, I might go to a call for Chapstick or a hair product and then run to audition for a new lab for Broadway—it varies. I love the spontaneity of it all!

Doherty and Nataly Santiago in rehearsal with Tyce Diorio.

Courtesy GVN Releasing

Are you working on any other projects?

I've been wrapping up Steven Spielberg's upcoming West Side Story—I'm a dance double, so you may not ever see my face in the movie. But it's another great opportunity to meld the worlds of acting and dance together!

What is your advice to young ballet dancers who may be thinking about taking a similar career path as you?

What's served me well is never saying "I can't" or "I won't," but "I'll try." It sounds cliché, but I really think that 80 percent of the work is just showing up—see what develops and what you're capable of, because you never know until you try.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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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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