Maria Khoreva and Victor Caixeta chat backstage at the Kennedy Center.

Quinn Wharton

The Mariinsky's Next Generation: Meet 4 of The Company's Rising Young Stars

On the Mariinsky Ballet's tour to the U.S. last fall, audiences clamored to see long established stars like Ekaterina Kondaurova, Kimin Kim, Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov. But it was also an opportunity to catch an exciting group of young protégés being nurtured by acting director Yuri Fateev. Just a few years out of school, they are a tight-knit and social-media-savvy group oozing with potential. In between performances at the Kennedy Center, Pointe sat down with four of them—first soloist Maria Khoreva, second soloists May Nagahisa and Victor Caixeta, and corps de ballet member Daria Ionova—to talk about what it's been like to be thrust into the Mariinsky spotlight so soon.


Maria Khoreva, First Soloist

Age: 19

Joined Mariinsky: 2018

Quinn Wharton

Maria Khoreva and Konstantin Zverev rehearse Paquita. "The full-length changed my perception of her character," says Khoreva. "I was used to seeing only the grand pas, which has a royal feeling to it. But while Paquita is of noble birth, she's lived as a gypsy for most of her life, so she has a playful energy to her."

Utterly self-possessed onstage and intensely focused offstage, Maria Khoreva has been on the fast-track from the moment she joined the Mariinsky. She had already gained the world's attention on social media as a promising Vaganova Ballet Academy student, and within her first few months in the company she had starred in her first full-length (Paquita) and been promoted to first soloist. Yet she still feels awestruck dancing among the Mariinsky's principals and soloists. "It's like living your everyday life with the ballet gods," she says. "It's insane! I cherish their advice."

Khoreva trained at the Vaganova Academy for eight years, but as graduation approached, she admits she wasn't sure where she wanted to dance. That's when Fateev cast her as Terpsichore in Balanchine's Apollo alongside principal Xander Parish. (He tapped classmates Daria Ionova and Anastasia Nuikina, now a second soloist, to dance the two other muses.) "He said, 'You can see how the theater works and how we rehearse, I can see what you're capable of, and then you can decide,' " says Khoreva. "After one or two rehearsals I knew I wanted to be here—I loved the atmosphere, and I loved rehearsing with Yuri."

Khoreva has danced only principal and soloist roles since then; this season she adds Aurora and Raymonda to her repertoire. And while her dream roles include Odette/Odile, she is willing to be patient. "There's a special time for everything. I'm just looking forward to learning something new and telling new stories."

May Nagahisa, Second Soloist

Age: 19

Joined Mariinsky: 2017

Quinn Wharton

Before her Giselle debut, Mai Nagahisa received advice from first soloist Ekaterina Osmolkina, a dancer she admires in the role. "My rehearsals weren't going well. She caught me in the corridor and said, 'Don't overthink it. You've rehearsed this for so long, trust that everything will be with you.' This was so helpful. I still remember it."

May Nagahisa danced her first featured solo at the Mariinsky as a 15-year-old student. Initially trained in her native Japan, Nagahisa left for Monaco's Princess Grace Academy at age 12 after winning a scholarship at Youth America Grand Prix. Two years later, Fateev spotted her at a YAGP summer intensive in Los Angeles and offered to give her a private rehearsal. Soon afterwards, he invited Nagahisa to perform as a guest in the company's production of La Bayadère. "I danced the Manu variation with two small girls from the Vaganova Academy," says Nagahisa. "I cried afterwards because I was so excited to be on the Mariinsky stage."

She visited Russia three more times before officially joining the company as a trainee, and jumped straight to second soloist one year later. Nagahisa has since danced major principal roles, including Giselle, the Sylph and Princess Florine. "I'm happy to just be here, and then to dance lead roles on top of that? I have no words."

Victor Caixeta, Second Soloist

Age: 20

Joined Mariinsky: 2017

Quinn Wharton

Victor Caixeta rehearses the role of Clemente in Paquita. "He has a really challenging variation," he says. Recently Caixeta has begun preparing his dream role, Romeo. "They think I'm Brazilian and full of energy, but I want to learn romantic roles."

"I never imagined I would dance in Russia," says Victor Caixeta. Born in Brazil, he started ballet at age 12, training privately with Brazilian and Russian teachers. Naturally charismatic onstage, he won a scholarship at Youth America Grand Prix to attend the State Ballet School of Berlin. Dancing at the Mariinsky wasn't even on Caixeta's radar when he went to the Moscow International Ballet Competition at age 17. But after Caixeta's first solo, Fateev approached him backstage and offered him a trainee contract on the spot. "I couldn't believe it," says Caixeta. "I didn't know internationals could even dance here. From Moscow I went back to Berlin, got my luggage and moved to Russia."

By 18 he was making his first major debut as the Nutcracker Prince (May Nagahisa, then 17, was his Masha). Since then he's added Don Quixote's Basilio, La Sylphide's James and the lead in Balanchine's "Rubies" to his repertoire, and he was promoted to second soloist in September. "Even if I'd gone to another company in Europe, I would never have the opportunities I've had here."

Daria Ionova, Corps de Ballet

Age: 23

Joined Mariinsky: 2018

Quinn Wharton

"When I first joined the theater, I was so scared, because everything at the Vaganova Academy is so strict," says Daria Ionova. "But my coach, Margarita Kullik, really wants me to relax and enjoy dancing, and to feel my emotions."

"I always wanted to dance with the Mariinsky, but for a long time I didn't believe I would get in," says Daria Ionova. Originally from Kaliningrad, she was twice rejected by the Vaganova Ballet Academy when she auditioned at ages 13 and 15. She thought about quitting. "But something told me to audition again, at 19," says Ionova. The school took her for its three-year graduate program on a probationary basis. But as her graduation approached, it was clear Fateev had plans for her. He cast her as Calliope in Apollo along with Khoreva, and a few months later showed off his "baby ballerina" cast at performances at New York City Center.

Though still a corps member, Ionova has already danced the lead pas de deux in "Emeralds," ("I love Balanchine," she gushes), as well as roles like Princess Florine, the Maiden in Le Spectre de la rose and one of Le Corsaire's three Odalisques. Balancing corps, soloist and principal roles means long hours. After class, she spends the first half of her day in corps rehearsals, with coaching sessions for any approaching soloist roles afterwards. "And then I perform, sometimes every night of the week. I get tired, but I just tell myself to stay strong."

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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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