Michael Barkidjija (second from left) in rehearsal with Nikolai Tsiskaridze, principal of the Vaganova Academy. Photo by Andrey Lushpa, courtesy Michael Barkidjija.

Meet Misha Barkidjija, the 18-Year-Old American Dancing with Russia's Mariinsky Ballet

What does it take for an American to graduate from the Vaganova Ballet Academy at the top of the class—and join the Mariinsky Ballet at the age of 17? And how would it feel to then be sidelined by injury, and miss an entire season of professional dancing, just as you're getting your start?

Pointe had the chance to speak with Chicago-born dancer Misha Barkidjija about his journey from a small ballet studio in Illinois to one of the most illustrious ballet companies in the world, and about lessons he learned in the process.

Discovering Vaganova

Barkidjija credits his mother, who is Russian herself, with encouraging his first steps in ballet, which he took at the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, Illinois, and later on at the Salt Creek Ballet in Westmont. "We danced in different styles—ballet, jazz, contemporary—and these performances fueled my early love of dance," says Barkidjija. "From a young age, I was performing onstage and feeling the energy of the audience." After attending a summer program at the National Ballet School of Canada, Barkidjija was invited to stay year-round, and spent a year training in Toronto.

But it was a trip to Russia over winter break in 2015 that proved pivotal in Barkidjija's journey as a dancer. While in St. Petersburg, he was able to take a tour of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Barkidjija, then 13 years old, asked if he could take a ballet class at the Academy the following day, just "to experience how it felt to participate in class at this renowned ballet school," he says. To his surprise, the Academy allowed it.

As luck would have it, while Barkidjija was taking class the following morning, Zhanna Ayupova, artistic director of the Vaganova, walked into the studio. "She talked to my mother after the class and offered the chance for me to study at the Academy," he says. "I'm still astonished."

"When I first saw Misha, I immediately noticed his natural charisma and intelligence," says Ayupova. "In class, it was apparent that he was very diligent, listening attentively to the teacher and instantly understanding the corrections. These are important qualities for a future ballet dancer."

Barkidjija performs in "La Gioconda" with Maria Khoreva. Barkidjija stands to the left, with one leg in tendu derri\u00e9re, and his arms in an elongated fourth position. He faces Khoreva, wearing white tights, white ballet shoes, a white long sleeved tunic embellished with gold, and a gold crown. Khoreva stands in arabesque on pointe, facing the audience, her higher arm extended towards Barkidjija. She wears pink tights, pink pointe shoes, a black tutu embellished with silver, and a silver tiara.

Barkidjija performing in La Gioconda with Mariinsky Ballet first soloist Maria Khoreva at the Vaganova Academy graduation in 2018

Andrey Lushpa, courtesy Barkidjija

Studying in Russia

So what was it like to be a student at one of the most prestigious ballet schools in the world? Barkidjija sums it up in one word: phenomenal. He studied under the Vaganova's principal, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. "He knows the ballet mechanics and points out which muscles to use and explains how to use it properly," Barkidjija says of Tsiskaridze's demanding yet thorough teaching style. "His approach is really unique and special."

Tsiskaridze praises Barkidjija's innate musicality and magnetic stage presence. "Misha is one of those few ballet artists with whom everyone who sees him onstage unconditionally falls in love," he says.

Barkidjija excelled not only in class but also in competitions, winning the Vaganova Prix and the first prize at the All-Russian Ballet Competition in Moscow in 2018. He danced leading roles in the Academy's ballet productions, inching closer and closer to his dream of becoming a professional dancer.

After graduating in 2019, Barkidjija auditioned for the Mariinsky Theatre and was offered a spot in the company. "It was important for me to stay in St. Petersburg because the city already felt like home," he says. "I'd lived and studied there for three years, and I wanted to remain close to my friends and Vaganova teachers."

Barkidjija performs in Paquita. He is centered in the photo, on stage, in a graceful leap facing to the side. He wears white ballet boots, white tights, and a white soldier's jacket with silver embellishments. Behind him is a row of ballerinas, arm in arm, in pink tutus. Set behind them slightly are dancers dressed as courtesans, sitting and standing along the edge of the stage.

Barkidjija performing in Paquita in a performance at the Vaganova Academy

Andrey Lushpa, courtesy Barkidjija

Life at the Mariinsky, Interrupted

Life at the Mariinsky started on a high note. He was dancing in his dream company, even preparing the lead role in Le Corsaire and solo roles in Cinderella, Swan Lake and La Sylphide. But the physical demands of the job proved to be too much. In September 2019, while performing in a pas de trois in Swan Lake, he started feeling discomfort in his back, which quickly intensified so he could barely walk. As it turned out, he had a protrusion in his lower spine, which pressed on the nerve, causing pain in his leg.

Dealing with the injury proved an educational experience for Barkidjija. "In the Academy, you have your teachers who take care of you—in the theater, you have to learn to take care of yourself. Having joined the company at 17, I was eager to do everything. But I realized that I needed to slow down and take one step at a time."

The company gave him as much time as he needed to recover, so he returned to Chicago to continue with his physical therapy. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic last spring and summer, he studied on Zoom with former teacher Tsiskaridze, focusing on his injury recovery.

Staying home and spending time with his family gave Barkidjija another valuable life lesson. "I've come to realize my family is a huge part of my life," he says. "As dancers, we are often so absorbed into the ballet world that we often forget about other important things around us."

He spent nearly a year recovering before he began feeling healthy enough to return to St. Petersburg this past August. Back at the Mariinsky Ballet, he is getting back into a normal routine, taking daily company class, doing rehearsals and studying for his final exams, in the hopes of receiving a bachelor of performing arts from the Vaganova Academy.

As for his professional goals, Barkidjija keeps things in perspective. For now, he is happy to dance in the corps de ballet, letting his body regain strength. "I want to take my time and get stronger, even if I feel confident and healthy. During my recovery, I realized that it's important to know my body's limits," he says. "The time will come and the opportunity will come. At 18, I have my whole career in front of me."

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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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