Lauren Cuthbertson as Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale. Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.

The Royal Ballet's Lauren Cuthbertson on Her Quarantine Routine and the Upcoming Stream of "The Winter's Tale"

In a whirlwind 36 hours in mid-March, Royal Ballet principal dancer Lauren Cuthbertson performed Aurora in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, then returned to England and went into coronavirus lockdown in a house outside London. She told Pointe how she is staying fit—mentally and physically—during quarantine, and shared insight into the role of Hermione in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale, which the Royal Ballet will stream online in May 1 on its YouTube channel.

You were invited by the Mariinsky Ballet to perform Aurora with Xander Parish in March. One day you're dancing in St. Petersburg and the next day you came home to the shock of coronavirus.

We were heading onto the stage, and I had a feeling that it might be the last time I'd be on stage for a while. Then as I was on the train back to London, I got the message from my company saying, "no classes, no rehearsals, don't come to the theater." As an artist you're able to put your needs first, until you realize that the health and well-being of everyone around us must come first.

You had this peak life experience, and within 24 hours everything changed.

I couldn't take it in. I had a seven-to-ten-day period where I was still active, but I wasn't doing anything specific to ballet. I found that social media was a hard thing to be with, because I felt like everyone was doing so much, and I felt so isolated from the thing I love most. I had a chat with one of my closest mentors, Jacquelin Barrett, and I just cried. We had this big discussion about your training becoming something you do every day that makes you feel good and keeps your routine, and ultimately gives you the basis so that when you have a rehearsal to go to and an audience to perform to, you're in the best possible shape. It was really important that I took that break, because it allowed my body to catch up with my brain—or my brain to catch up with my body, I don't know which.

What is your new routine?

I keep the timeframe pretty similar. From 9:30 a.m. onwards I'm thinking about ballet and fitness. I do a solid chunk, and then I do something else before dinner. I dedicate those two parts of the day to me and myself. I'm very lucky that I have a space where I can do that. But if I do a pas de bourrée, I run out of room a little bit. And I've got a ceiling beam above me, which I have to avoid if I'm putting my arms up during turns. My pointe work might be stronger when I come back, because I can focus on that a lot. In England we are allowed to go out for one piece of exercise a day, so I either take myself on a very long walk or a run, and it's lovely to feel the wind in your hair and that movement quality. I do miss having a massage, I'm not gonna lie! There's only so much you can do with your foam roller.

How are you maintaining a sense of community?

We've got Zoom company classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and there's fitness groups, a running group of people on different apps. I keep in touch with a handful of my really good friends.

What do you do to keep yourself entertained?

I'm cooking a lot, and I've got an interior design project that I'm working on, which is really fun. We've been so blessed with the weather in England, so a lot of time in the garden.

Wearing a long-sleeved purple dress, Lauren Cutherbertson stands in fourth position on pointe, her left hand clutching her forehead. Edward Watson, in a long dark jacket, tights and boots, kneels on the floor and aggressively grabs onto her waist with both hands.

Cuthbertson, as a pregnant Hermione, and Edward Watson in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale.

Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.

The Royal Ballet is streaming Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale on Friday. You originated the role of Hermione—what was that like?

What was so unique about Winter's Tale was that we had actors from the National Theatre in the studio doing a read-through before we started with the creative process in the studio. It's a complex story, and when we had the actors come do it, it became so clear.

There are almost no sets, and even the costumes are streamlined. That puts all of the complexity into the movement. How did you create this rich character just with your body?

At the Royal Ballet School we got a talk about how if you knew the source of what you were trying to express, then you could express it through any movement. That's something that's stayed with me. If you're feeling angst, the step that you're doing needs to look like you're full of angst. You're not relying on facial expressions; it has to come through every fiber of your being.

Do Shakespeare's words go through your mind as you're dancing?

Definitely. But then more and more over time, the words take second place and the movement takes first. There's a crossover.

There are some really hardcore technical parts of the choreography. Those turns in arabesque!

Yes! When it works it feels like the most natural thing to do. And when it doesn't, and you feel like you're not keeping up with the tempo, it can be quite distressing. You're having to lean to the right and arch your back as you go around; you're not even completely upright with your arabesque in first.

What is Hermione saying with those six arabesque turns?

She is expressing her disbelief in her husband not trusting her, and she is going out of her mind. There is an incredible Hermione quote: "There's some ill planet reigns / I must be patient till the heavens look / With an aspect more favorable." I love that quote so much because it describes to me that moment in her life and what an incredible woman Hermione was, and how I have to step up to play her. But it also inspired me to be a better woman, or person.

Laurent Cutherbertson, wearing a light pink and gold tutu, blond wig and gold tiara, balances in attitude facing the upstage right corner, looking back towards the audience with a smile.

Cuthbertson in The Nutcracker.

Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH

When we're finally able to get back out into the world, what will you do first?

I'll visit my family. I'll probably go to the dentist and the hairdresser! As much as dancers are missing performing, I think there are a lot of people who rely on the arts to transport them. I think it will be a wonderful way to reunite after this. I think it will be quite emotional.

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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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