Jayme Thornton

Ready to Soar: 20-Year-Old Natasha Sheehan Found Early Success at San Francisco Ballet

This is Pointe's February/March 2019 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

When Natasha Sheehan debuted in The Sleeping Beauty's Bluebird pas de deux last season, she enchanted the San Francisco Ballet audience with her filigree footwork, elegant lines and effortless charisma. It was a big moment for the then-19-year-old, who was just beginning her second year in the corps, but it wasn't her first—Sheehan has been in the spotlight since she was a 16-year-old trainee in the company school.

That's when SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson gave her the lead in his Bartók Divertimento for the 2016 season gala, an evening featuring the company's biggest stars. Before that she was a cygnet in Swan Lake. "It felt like a dream," Sheehan says of getting featured roles so early. But it was also high-stakes. "During the 'Little Swans,' I could see Helgi watching me in the wings," she recalls vividly. "It was like, 'This is my one chance. I have to do this right.' "


Sheehan as the Enchanted Princess in The Sleeping Beauty

Erik Tommason, Courtesy SFB

And just after joining the corps in the fall of 2016, at age 17, Sheehan won the prestigious Erik Bruhn Prize. The annual competition is open to professionals ages 18 to 23 from National Ballet of Canada, SFB, American Ballet Theatre, Hamburg Ballet and The Royal Ballet. (Sheehan had to get special permission because she was underage.) She and principal dancer Angelo Greco, then a soloist, danced Foragers, a contemporary piece choreographed by Myles Thatcher, and the Giselle Act II pas de deux. "She is really young, but she is really talented," says Greco, who won the men's prize. "She has everything."

"I'm so grateful for how much has already come to me, so soon," says Sheehan, now 20 and midway through her third year in the corps. But while her path to center stage seems like a fairy tale, she's struggled along the way, including learning to manage intense perfectionism that started during her early training.

Growing up in Walnut Creek, California, a San Francisco suburb, 9-year-old Sheehan joined her youngest sister's jazz, hip-hop and tap classes at a local studio. She took ballet as a member of the studio's dance team—and hated it. But she quickly fell in love with the art form while watching videos of Polina Semionova and Alessandra Ferri on YouTube. At 10, she dove into serious training—starting with remedial technique lessons with 6-year-olds. "I had to start from the beginning, and I felt intimidated," she says. "But I got over it."

Blessed with natural turnout, graceful arches and classical proportions, Sheehan caught up quickly and soon felt unchallenged. So when other girls from the studio got into the SFB School, the 11-year-old Sheehan decided to audition.

Her recollection of the audition verges on slapstick. "The train was running late, and I spilled water all over my leotard. It looked like I peed." She and her mom rinsed her leotard with water in the restroom "so it would all be the same color. In the class, the leotard was damp." Despite the mishap, she was accepted with a full scholarship.

Sheehan in Nutcracker's "Waltz of the Flowers"

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Tomasson spotted Sheehan right away. "It was the purity of her classical lines," he says. "And a certain poise she had as a young girl. It's rare to find somebody who is so suited to classical roles." Patrick Armand, the school's director, agrees. "She had something special," he says. "A lovely facility and a lot of articulation, and a nice quality in her dancing that's something you cannot learn."

But Sheehan thought she did have a lot to learn compared to her classmates. "I felt behind, and I tried to do what everybody else was doing," she says. "That made me overthink things and try to be perfect at everything." Her goal-oriented drive propelled her through the levels, and summer intensives at SFB, the School of American Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and Ellison Ballet honed her technique.

Yet her perfectionism was becoming a barrier—class corrections could make her crumble. The disparity between Sheehan's artistic potential and emotional maturity came to a head at the end of her first trainee year. Although she was just 16, Tomasson wanted to take her into the corps, but ultimately decided that she should do a second trainee year and focus on mastering her mind-set. "There is the danger if you push somebody too fast at that age," he says. "The expectations and the responsibility can be a huge burden."


Outside expectations were nothing compared to the pressure Sheehan put on herself. "I am an extreme perfectionist," she admits, so Armand focused on building her confidence and resilience. "I explained that to get better, you're going to have to fail," he says.

"Patrick told me, 'Don't overthink things. Just do what you love to do, which is dance," says Sheehan. She began to see imperfection not as failure but as an essential part of being an artist. After gaining another year of experience, she felt ready to join the company.

Sheehan opened her first company season by returning to the gala stage with Greco and reprising Foragers. Thatcher, who has choreographed on her since her early school days, noticed the evolution. "It's been really fun to see her grow into this maturity," he says. "And she allows herself to be vulnerable onstage, which is powerful."

Sheehan at her Pointe cover shoot

Jayme Thornton

Letting go of perfectionism is an ongoing challenge. Even last season's Unbound festival, where Sheehan danced in edgy world premieres by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Alonzo King and Edwaard Liang, was a learning process. "The choreographers would have me do a certain movement over and over again to try and get it into my body," she says. "I'm getting used to not always dancing pretty, and allowing myself to get ugly and weird." While she was rehearsing Cupid for this season's Don Quixote, she knew she was just as likely to be a nymph. She's gotten used to juggling corps and featured roles: "It would be impossible to have an ego, because you have to be able to switch into so many different types of roles," she says. "I've learned to treat every role the same."

As Aurora (with principal Wei Wang) in a student matinee of The Sleeping Beauty

Chris Hardy, Courtesy SFB

She's also chosen to draw a clear line between work and life. "I'm friendly with everyone, but I learned how important it is to have an outside life and outside interests," she says. "That's helped me avoid distractions." Sheehan, whose mother was born in Korea, loves K-pop music, and she caught boy band BTS on their recent tour. ("It was insane but amazing!") Cooking and food blogging gives her another creative outlet. She envisions becoming a nutritionist after her dance career, and is enrolled in the LEAP program at Saint Mary's College of California. To help pay for school, she lives at home with her parents and two younger sisters, who keep her grounded. "They don't allow me to really talk about ballet," she says. "They say, 'We love you, Tash, but ballet's kind of boring.' "

Now that all the pieces are coming together, Sheehan is moving forward with the confidence she's worked so hard to earn. "I hope to be able to do all the dream roles, hopefully become a principal dancer," she says. Then again, she's not going to worry about it. "I'm not sure what the future holds, and I'm okay with that."

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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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