Nathan Sayers for Pointe

Breaking Borders: How Non-Russian Dancers Kimin Kim and Xander Parish Found an Artistic Home at the Mariinsky

This story originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Pointe.

Russia is often perceived as a closed book from abroad, and ballet is no exception. Though David Hallberg joined the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011, the country's top companies have been slow to open their ranks to non-Russians. Under acting director Yuri Fateyev, however, the venerable Mariinsky Ballet has welcomed a handful of dancers trained abroad. South Korea's Kimin Kim and Great Britain's Xander Parish initially struggled to fit in with the culture, but both have found their niche in St. Petersburg, and are thriving today among Russian colleagues.


Nathan Sayers for Pointe

Kimin Kim

Growing up in South Korea, Kimin Kim always thought of himself as a Russian dancer. For the prodigy who honed his astounding technique and poise with Vaganova-trained teachers, being a principal with the Mariinsky Ballet was “the ultimate dream," he says. Earlier this year, it came true: At just 22, after three years in St. Petersburg, he was promoted to the top rank, the first foreigner to attain principal.

Kim's journey started at age 10, when his mother, a composer, decided she “didn't want him to be an ordinary person," as he puts it, and suggested he try ballet. Former Mariinsky soloists Margarita Kullik and Vladimir Kim (no relation) nurtured him at the Korea National University of Arts. By the age of 18, his precocious technique had earned him accolades at international competitions from Moscow to Varna, and his teachers told Mariinsky director Yuri Fateyev about their protégé.

"I had to adapt to the culture:

Russian people are more critical,

more emotional." —Kimin Kim

Kim was invited to a private audition in 2011, and since he hadn't graduated from his Korean school yet, Fateyev created a six-month trainee contract for him. He spoke no Russian, so his teachers moved back to St. Petersburg to live with him; Vladimir Kim remains his coach there. “It was very hard at first, because I couldn't do anything on my own," the dancer remembers. “I also had to adapt to the culture: Russian people are more critical, more emotional."

His first role with the company was Ali in Le Corsaire, and word of his impeccable turns, soaring jumps and elegant demeanor spread fast. In 2012, he was promoted straight to first soloist, and has worked long hours to add roles, including Solor, Basilio and Albrecht, to his repertoire, as well as ballets by Alexei Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor.

Earlier this year, Fateyev decided Kim was ready for principal status, though in a time-honored Mariinsky tradition, no one told him; instead, while in the U.S. for Youth America Grand Prix's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala, he got a text from Vladimir Kim urging him to look at the Mariinsky's website. “I saw my face at the top of the roster, and I knew," Kim says.

Fateyev also suggested him to American Ballet Theatre for a guest spot in La Bayadère last spring. While Kim's international career is taking off, the young principal says Russia is his home now. “Ballets like Swan Lake and Don Quixote were born here. Russian people feel these ballets, and I want to improve my characters, to understand the culture." And now that he has reached his childhood goal, Kim jokes that he needs to find new ones: “Maybe I'd like to be director of the Mariinsky!"


Nathan Sayers for Pointe

Xander Parish

Xander Parish could be the poster child for late bloomers. The British-born dancer spent four and a half years at the back of The Royal Ballet's corps before Yuri Fateyev plucked him out of a class he was teaching in London and asked him to join the Mariinsky.

Parish's training wasn't as far from Russian as you'd expect: At The Royal Ballet School, he was taught in part by former Kirov dancer Anatoli Grigoriev. After he joined the British company in 2005, however, no opportunities came his way. “I was always the last one to get strength, even at school," Parish says. “The Royal wanted instant ability. They didn't have the patience to work with slow developers."

"It took two years to prove myself as a dancer,

to show I could be worthy of more."

—Xander Parish

Fateyev saw potential in his long lines and tall stature, however, and Parish took a leap of faith, landing in St. Petersburg in 2010. Hired as a coryphée, he juggled corps and soloist duties while his two coaches, Fateyev and later Igor Petrov, set out to mold him into a prince. Parish estimates it took him three years to feel fully at home in the company. “After one year I'd made some friends. I could understand one percent of the language, give or take," he laughs. “And then it took two years to prove myself as a dancer, to improve my technique, to show I could be worthy of more."

His first leading role in an evening-length ballet, Albrecht in Giselle, was “make or break," he says. “I knew I had to do it well, or I probably wouldn't be doing it anymore." Fateyev was pleased, and more principal roles followed. In 2014, his performance of Aminta in Sir Frederick Ashton's Sylvia earned him the rank of second soloist—his first promotion, he notes self-deprecatingly, since he left school. When the 29-year-old returned to the UK with the Russian company in 2014, the transformation was complete: As Apollo, Parish embodied the young god's journey from clumsy innocence to classical purity.

Parish now spends his long days at the Mariinsky honing his technique and repertoire. Fateyev praises his acting, a British strength, and cast him last season in another Ashton classic, Marguerite and Armand, alongside Ulyana Lopatkina. The Mariinsky's two American conductors have become his close friends; all three live across the street from the theater, in apartments supplied by the company.

The first British dancer to join the Mariinsky hasn't forgotten his roots: He hopes to see Manon return to St. Petersburg, and would love to guest with The Royal Ballet. In the meantime, he relishes Russian ballet's intense work ethic. “Not everyone is an instant success, and it takes dancing to make dancing strong," he says. “Here, I was given the chance to grow into my body."

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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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