Mayara Pineiro photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Finding Her Stride: Pennsylvania Ballet's Mayara Pineiro

This is Pointe's April/May 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

After Pennsylvania Ballet's Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca run their Nutcracker pas de deux in rehearsal, ballet master Charles Askegard asks for just one correction. Pineiro—who is thrilling as she plunges headlong into penché, whips into crisp turns and hurls herself backward into Soca's arms—is asked to emphasize taffy-like stretches into lengthened holds. Askegard is right. Counterbalancing the lightning-quick and the sensual brings even more dimension to this riveting dancer.

In just her second season with Pennsylvania Ballet, where she started in the corps, the Cuban-born Pineiro has danced leading roles in Balanchine's Allegro Brillante and Matthew Neenan's Shift to Minor. Elevated to soloist in March 2015 following her performance as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, she continues to be given choice principal roles.

“It was like fire onstage," says Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella of her performance in Allegro Brillante. “She's one of those dancers that comes only every once in a while." The path leading to this moment was long and challenging, including Pineiro's rigorous training in Havana, her brave defection to the U.S. and a period of uncertainty about whether she could continue dancing at all. Now, she has landed right where she wants to be.


Pineiro in "Don Quixote." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.



Born in Havana, Pineiro started ballet at age 3, and she fell utterly in love with dancing. Living in poverty, paying for lessons was a stretch. Pineiro felt she needed to repay her mother for the sacrifices made on her behalf by being the best she could.

She eventually progressed to the highly selective and rigorous Cuban National Ballet School. There, she says, the Cuban methodology involves working first on technical issues like turning and balance, practicing slowly to build strength and control. Later the focus shifts to presence and performance quality. “In Cuba my teachers said, 'On the stage you reveal who you are,' " says Pineiro. Once she had begun to medal in competitions, she was mentored by the school's finest teachers, including Martha Iris and Fernando Alonso. Above all they cultivated her expressiveness and confidence onstage.

Pineiro toured with the school to Italy, Peru and South Africa, winning and placing in competitions along the way. Still, by her final year she was aware of challenges she would face in a Cuban career. Dancers at the National Ballet of Cuba make only about $30 to $50 a month. She was also eager to sample a wider repertoire. Because of Cubans' allegiance to the classics, contemporary ballet is nearly nonexistent there.

When she traveled with a delegation to Toronto, they made an outing to Niagara Falls and stopped for lunch. From the restaurant, Pineiro noticed a bridge leading to the U.S., and took her chance. She decided to slip away from the group, walk across the bridge to the U.S. side, and ask for asylum. She ducked first into the restaurant's bathroom to shoot a video farewell on her phone for her mother. She explained why she had to defect, and urged her mother to take good care of herself until they could meet again. Despite the anguish of leaving her family, “in my mind I thought it would be perfect," says Pineiro. “I didn't imagine anything bad."

Then only 17, she was the youngest ballet dancer ever to defect. Because she was a minor, U.S. officials detained her for several weeks, needing permission from her parents before she could be released to her uncle in Florida. The documentary film Secundaria, which follows Pineiro and several of her classmates at the National Ballet School, captures the moment at the airport when her mother hears of her defection. Heartbroken, she also knows it is for the best and agrees to let her stay.


Pineiro in William Forsythe's "The Second Detail." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.


Once settled in Orlando, Pineiro learned that her relatives did not have money to pay for ballet classes. For six months, she says, “I felt I was never going to go back to dance. It was a very confusing feeling, because I had just arrived in the country and wasn't aware of how things worked. Ballet seemed so far away."

In her last attempt to go back to dance, she visited Orlando Ballet. There, she met the company wardrobe mistress, whose son, Etienne Diaz, was also a dancer. “She told me to contact him, maybe he could help me find a studio."

Diaz, who soon became Pineiro's longtime boyfriend, connected her with Vasile Petrutiu, who offered her free classes at Central Florida Ballet. She also received free training from Cuban teacher Magaly Suarez at The Art of Classical Ballet, in Pompano Beach. “She takes corrections right away, and she never goes back to that problem," says Suarez. “It was a great pleasure to work with her."

Petrutiu's connections helped the pair land soloist contracts with the National Opera of Bucharest. In 2011, Pineiro returned to Florida to compete in Youth America Grand Prix's Tampa semi-finals. Coached by Suarez, she triumphed, winning first place. Afterwards, she guested with Balletto del Sud in Italy. “I learned so much," she says. “The time I spent in Europe introduced me to new choreographers and styles I had never seen before."

In 2012, Pineiro and Diaz returned to the U.S. to be closer to family, dancing with the Milwaukee Ballet for two seasons. During their 2014 summer break, they traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, where Corella was guest-teaching. “I went to Hartford because I knew he would be there," Pineiro says. “I just wanted to take class with him."


Pineiro as Odette/Odile in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.


“With her beautiful physique, she stood out right away," says Corella. “When she put on her pointe shoes and started to turn and jump, I thought I've never seen anyone turn like that. The speed is unbelievable."

Deeply impressed, Corella offered both Pineiro and Diaz contracts. For Pineiro's part, she says that the former American Ballet Theatre star is a major reason why she wanted to dance with PAB. “I was very excited when he invited me. I couldn't say no."

Now dancing a varied repertoire, Pineiro notes that while the Cuban approach forms great dancers, it doesn't emphasize as much the quickness found in Balanchine, Ratmansky or Neenan. Picking up the pace has been a welcome stretch for her: “Everything that I dance here is kind of fast. Now I like the speed."

She has also found the perfect dance partner. Arian Molina Soca, a former National Ballet of Cuba principal who trained with Pineiro at the National Ballet School, joined PAB this season. Soca says their shared background means he can forecast what she'll do and where he has to give more force in pirouettes or in a balance. “I feel very secure, that she's in control," he says. “Together, we feel very connected."

On the big stage of Philadelphia's Academy of Music, Pineiro combines a light touch with a compelling grandness and sense of occasion. Her technical brilliance dazzles—seven or eight pirouettes are not unusual for her. And now, with the thaw in U.S.–Cuba relations, she may get to perform in her home country before long.

“I'd love to do as many roles as I can, to get experience," she says. “I'm loving Balanchine now, and contemporary. I picture myself here in Pennsylvania as a principal, so I'm working on that."

For his part, Corella says that Pineiro's attitude—accommodating and teachable—is a significant strength. “She's evolving every day into something more and more special," he says. “In less than a year we promoted her to soloist. The other thing will happen very soon."

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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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