Maria Kochetkova, photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

A Free Soul: Bolshoi-Trained Maria Kochetkova Soars at San Francisco Ballet

Things are not going perfectly in a rehearsal of the Grand Pas de Deux from Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker, and San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova is not happy. A running leap onto the shoulder of partner Gennadi Nedvigin lands acceptably, but merely okay doesn't satisfy Kochetkova.

“I just have to find a way…one, two, three, four," she counts almost to herself, calculating how many steps she needs to take. They try again, and with unerring aim, she sails into place.

You might think that would be that, but as Nedvigin rehearses his solo, Kochetkova slips on a sweater, pauses to gaze out a window at the view of the War Memorial Opera House and then proceeds to repeat those same four steps over and over again, fine-tuning them even more.

Young and energetic, with porcelain features that belie the steely security of her technique, 25-year-old Kochetkova is part of a new generation of principals at SFB. She seems even slighter in person than she does on film: She dances this same pas de deux on SFB's Nutcracker DVD. In the hallway, with no makeup and strands of hair escaping a loosely tacked high bun, Kochetkova could easily be mistaken for one of the school's students. But once she begins to dance, her face—indeed her whole body—lights up with the unmistakable glamour and refinement of a ballerina. Even in the most complex variation, she breathes purity into every step, moving with both assurance and poetry. Each arabesque looks delicately spontaneous yet solidly secure. Her jumps ricochet off the floor with barely a sound. The only hint that any of this is difficult is her heavy breathing—and you must be very close to hear it.

Kochetkova with Nicolas Blanc in Jorma Elo's "Double Evil." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Born in Russia, Masha, as she is known to friends and colleagues, had initially hoped to be a gymnast. When she was 10, her parents (both of whom are engineers) convinced her to change to ballet. At the time, dance seemed to her like a girlish diversion, while gymnastics was serious work. That opinion quickly changed once she began at the Bolshoi Ballet's Moscow State Academy of Choreography.

“It was really, really tough," Kochetkova recalls. She was chosen to be in the class of Sofia Golovkina, the famously ruthless academy director. “We were scared of her. Every class was like a performance."

Still, Kochetkova says training with Golovkina gave her discipline. “I'm grateful that she was so demanding. She saw something I didn't know about myself as a dancer. She'd make me jump higher, she'd make me turn better, she'd make me stay on balance. She made me the dancer that I am," Kochetkova says. “It is a very different mentality from schools in America—more competitive. The
first thing you understood was that you were there to work, not for fun or pleasure."

During the final year of her training, shortly after she'd won the bronze medal at the Moscow International Competition, Kochetkova decided to compete at the 2002 Prix de Lausanne. It was a
risky move: Her teachers hadn't sanctioned her competing, so she had no coach and was forced to rehearse alone.

“But this was my chance to get out there—to be seen," she says. Her plan worked: She won the silver, and was offered an apprenticeship with The Royal Ballet. “I knew I couldn't just wait and hope for a job to come to me. I had to do it myself."

Which brings us back to Kochetkova's workaholic reputation. Fellow SFB principal Joan Boada—who created a stunning pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour with Kochetkova—notes that she's the only person who can get him into the studio on his day off. Asked what she's like to work with, he says with mock agony, “Oh it's horrible!"

Kochetkova with Boada in Christopher Wheeldon's "Within the Golden Hour." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

“She's a ballet freak," he confides. “In fact, she even has a shirt that was made for her at the English National Ballet that says 'Ballet Freak.' We joke that if she had the keys to the studio, she would stay there overnight."

“It's really good for me though," he goes on seriously, noting that Kochet­kova is always pushing to find new ways to do things. “She thinks ballet is really hard for her; that's why she does it for so many hours a day. But she can accomplish things that are brilliant. That's the kind of training she has—and it takes you places, when you're that committed. She'll get what she wants."

While at The Royal, Kochetkova found herself enthralled by London and the variety of contemporary choreography the city had to offer. But adjusting to a new language and way of doing things in a com­pany with such long-standing traditions proved difficult. After a year, she moved to the English National Ballet in search of new inspiration. “I saw ENB perform Forsythe disciple David Dawson's A Million Kisses to My Skin," she says, “and thought, 'I so much want to do that kind of ballet.' "

On holiday back in Moscow, Kochetkova had the good fortune to run into Christopher Wheeldon, who was staging a work for the Bolshoi. Earlier, she had sent a DVD of her work to SFB but never got a response. Unbeknownst to her, Wheeldon put in a call to director Helgi Tomasson.

“Helgi had asked me to look out for a small ballerina," Wheeldon recalls. “On watching Masha in class at the Bolshoi and talking to her, SFB seemed like a perfect fit. Masha displayed the qualities of an artist: strength mixed with a delicacy and vulnerability."

Kochetkova took class at SFB and Tomasson quickly offered her a principal contract. “There was something special about her," says Tomasson. “Maria has excellent training, as well as an inherent musicality and lyricism. I'm amazed at how she can move so easily from a classical role like Giselle to contemporary pieces by Mark Morris or Jorma Elo."

That versatility has made her a natural ambassador to new audiences. “Most people don't get to see good ballet," she says. “I want to get them interested in it." In 2009 she competed on the NBC show Superstars of Dance—and took the top honor for individual performer. “I remember standing backstage, watching these Chinese acrobats standing on each others' shoulders," she says, “and thinking, 'Wow—I just do ballet.' “

“I didn't realize how much response I would get from being on the show," she continues. After winning the gold medal, 2,000 people wrote to her and, she notes with pride, she answered them personally.

Eschewing the mystique of the “untouchable" prima donna, Kochetkova is an avid social networker, blogging, tweeting and posting about everything from her rehearsal process to her favorite dance movies. Moments before our interview, a quick glance at her Twitter feed reveals this cheerful dispatch from “balletrusse": “Off to the interview with @pointe_magazine."

Kochetkova credits her husband, Edward King, who works in the film industry, with impressing on her the importance of communicating with a larger audience. Some might view all this as mere self-promotion, but for Kochet­kova it's less about egotism than reaching out. “Dance is for everyone," she asserts.

And if her desire to share her love of ballet takes extra effort and time, well, Kochetkova is no stranger to hard work. That ethic has contributed to a meteoric rise in just a few short years, putting her on the same footing as her idols. Last summer Kochetkova danced in the renowned World Ballet Festival in Tokyo, a gathering of some of the greatest names in ballet.

“There were so many great dancers there and we all took class together. To be in class and rehearsal with Sylvie Guillem was…" Kochetkova pauses. “When I had just joined The Royal Ballet as an apprentice, I was one of the little girls under the carriage in Manon, and watched her perform up close. I so admired her, and there I was sharing the stage with Sylvie."

In Guillem—another renowned perfectionist—Kochetkova recognizes not just inspiration but a kindred spirit. “It was great to realize that the more talented you are, the more you have to work."

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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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