Melanie Hamrick in Balanchine's Valse Fantaisie. Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.

Melanie Hamrick Is Saying Goodbye to American Ballet Theatre, but Has Big Plans for the Future

Melanie Hamrick has been an undeniable force in American Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet for the past 15 years (16 if you count her time in the Studio Company, she points out). Her technical precision, combined with her luxurious quality of drawing each step out so that it melts into the next, has made her a standout whether she's dancing a featured role or in a corps of swans. On Saturday, she'll take her final bow with the company in Balanchine's Theme and Variations, with just a tiny bit of nerves. "I've always been a calm performer, but this fall season I've been quite nervous," she explained after rehearsal on Thursday. "I want to take in every moment and really enjoy it. I got quite emotional earlier this week because I'm going to miss my friends," she says, adding, "But I'm excited for the next chapter."


That next chapter includes spending time with her partner, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and their son. But she's not retiring from dance completely. Hamrick has a growing interest in creating her own work, having made her choreographic debut earlier this year with Porte Rouge. The piece, which featured music by the Rolling Stones, had its premiere in Russia at the Mariinsky Theatre's Creative Workshop of Young Choreographers and later at Youth America Grand Prix's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala. "I had a lot of fun with that process, and I'm looking forward to working on choreography and developing new ideas." Read on for more about her ambitious new plans, her thoughts on dancing and motherhood, and her advice for young dancers in the corps.

Why did you decide to retire now?

I enjoy dancing and I enjoy the performance aspect, but over the past year, it was hard for me to stay motivated on layoffs. And I was like, "Maybe this is a sign." And then I got so excited when I choreographed Porte Rouge. I had this new motivation and thought that I could enjoy trying out some other styles. I started taking contemporary and hip-hop classes last year. It was so funny to be in the back of the class in my sneakers for hip-hop, but it made me smile. I love ballet so much, but over the last year it was becoming a chore to be in ballet class. And I don't ever want to feel that way or lose my love of it. I wanted to leave on a high note and while I'm happy.

Hamrick as the Fairy Candide in Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Do you have a favorite role you've performed with ABT?

I love Apollo and Caroline in Lilac Garden and Olympia in Lady of the Camellias. I think it's been 10 years since we performed Lady of the Camellias, but I loved dancing Olympia so much because it was such an acting role, and the costumes were so beautiful. It was a full-length, and I felt like I could really get into a character. I went and saw the opera, La Traviata, I read the book, it was the whole process that was quite cool.

How has becoming a mother influenced your dancing?

I used to analyze every step, and then when I had my son, I was like, "I don't have time to analyze, I need to get onstage." I would be showing up an hour before the show and just barely getting ready in time and thinking, "Well, I've got to trust myself that I know it." I enjoyed not overanalyzing anymore, because I think sometimes you lose the fun when you go too deep.

Hamrick as a Flower Girl in Don Quixote.

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

What will you miss most about dancing with ABT?

I'll miss the dancers—that day-to-day camaraderie with people who share the same passion you do, and their feet hurting as much as your feet are hurting. It's really special. Everyone says, "ABT family," and people kind of giggle, but it really is.

What's next for you?

I'm going to choreograph, and I'm also getting into the creative direction. I can't say much about it yet, but I'm developing a new project that's like a rock-dance festival with Joanna DeFelice, who choreographed Porte Rouge with me earlier this year. It was fun to be at the Mariinsky Theater in Russia and to see people wearing Rolling Stones T-shirts in the audience who had never been to the ballet before. I loved that idea, of making ballet more accessible. After you go to a concert at Madison Square Garden, you walk away and you're hyped up and you want to go dancing. I want people to feel like that with ballet and dance. I want to develop it with fashion, art, music, and dance, so that maybe it won't be the dance aspect that pulls people to the theater, maybe it will be fashion, for instance. It's a big project and it's risky because it hasn't really been done before, but hopefully we can make it work.

Hamrick as the Winter Fairy in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella.

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

What are you looking forward to most about retiring?

I'd really like to develop my skills as a choreographer. And, of course, I'm looking forward to spending time with my son and my partner and just enjoying life a little bit. It'll be my first time in 20 years not doing Nutcracker, so that might feel weird, but it will be nice to enjoy December. It's such a beautiful time in the city, and I'm looking forward to being with my son and taking him to different shows.

Do you have any advice for young dancers?

Don't try to fit into a mold. The corps de ballet is so beautiful and wonderful, and while the beauty of it is dancing in unison, keep your uniqueness. When I was young, I took so much on—I wanted to make this person happy and that person happy—that I sometimes lost what was special about me. Don't lose sight of that. Trust your instincts and work hard, but remember it's okay if you have a bad couple of days. Go to the movies, take a deep breath, relax, and go back in fresh.

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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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