Precious Adams

Kristie Kahns. Hair and makeup by Kristina Feyerherm.

Precious Adams' Journey from Student of the World to Captivating English National Ballet First Artist

This is Pointe's Fall 2019 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Precious Adams is sitting in a deck chair in the sunshine of London's Olympic Park. She's on a break from rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella with English National Ballet, where she's been polishing up her comic timing for the role of Sister Edwina (they're not "ugly" sisters in this production). "Working with Christopher Wheeldon is a massive tick on my bucket list," smiles the 24-year-old as she tucks into her lunch.

The Detroit native joined ENB in 2014 and was promoted to first artist, one notch up from the corps, in 2017. For a dancer with such an impressive resumé, that may not seem like a meteoric rise—she trained at Canada's National Ballet School, the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco and Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet Academy before becoming a double prizewinner at 2014's Prix de Lausanne. So as she comes up to five years with ENB, is Adams frustrated not to be moving more quickly up the ranks? "I can't say yes or no because I don't really live with too much expectation," she says, matter- of-fact. "I don't like to be disappointed if things don't go exactly how I want." Rank is less important in this company, she says, because visiting choreographers cast whichever dancers suit the roles. "I'm okay to wait in line, to keep working," she says, "as long as I'm ready when opportunities come my way."

And those opportunities are now coming her way. Adams has been repeatedly singled out by the critics, who gave her the Emerging Artist prize at 2018's UK National Dance Awards, and her career is gaining momentum: Last season she was cast as the Chosen One in Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring ("It's raw and powerful and spiritual," she says); she danced the "Calliope Rag" with panache and pizzazz in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations; and over the last two years she's made her mark in ballets across the rep, from the wilting grace of La Sylphide to the strident modernity of William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated. A powerfully athletic dancer with deep-rooted classical sensibility, Adams' training has given her versatility: the articulated French footwork from her time in Monaco, the flexibility and expansive port de bras from the Bolshoi.

For Adams, the instinct to dance was always there. "When I heard music I always really liked to move, but it wasn't pretty," she says. She'd put a Vengaboys CD on after school and dance around the living room. At age 6, Adams started jazz classes with younger sister Portia (now a dancer with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo), but it was clear she had a facility for ballet. At Michigan's Academy of Russian Classical Ballet, teacher Sergey Rayevskiy immediately saw her potential. "You can tell by a kid's physical ability and how their mind works whether they will make it or not," says Rayevskiy. "With Precious I knew from the very beginning."

Adams in the "Calliope Rag" from Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations

Bill Cooper, Courtesy ENB

Adams' drive was also apparent. "When I was 9 or 10 I thought, I really like this. I need to take it more seriously," she says. Her mother, a dentist, and her father, an orthodontist, encouraged their daughters' artistic leanings and Precious' desire to leave home for full-time training in Canada at age 11. When she later won an apprenticeship to a company of her choice at the Prix de Lausanne, it was her mother who suggested she go to ENB, because the company had appointed a woman director, Tamara Rojo. "I'd never heard of ENB at that point," Adams admits, "but she thought it might be a good place to start, because it's so rare to have a female director."

In London, Adams has made a strong impression onstage, and she's been a poster girl for the company (she also does some modeling on the side, when she has the time). Last year, one striking publicity shot for Swan Lake featured Adams looking gorgeous with her long swan arms, her dark skin contrasted against a white tutu. She wasn't performing Odette/Odile, though, and fans on social media called out the company for using a black dancer to prove their woke credentials without actually casting her in a lead role. Adams, however, points out that it's common for the dancers on ENB's posters not to be cast in the parts they're portraying. "It's about grabbing attention, creating an aesthetic," she says. "I'm not going to bog myself down thinking, Oh, gosh, am I being exploited?"

"I'm okay to wait in line, to keep working, as long as I'm ready when opportunities come my way," says Adams.

Kristie Kahns

Adams, who experienced racism while training in Russia, sometimes has opinions on race that she wants to share. "But then my opinions can change," she says. "Real-life situations can fundamentally change your core beliefs, which is hard, because once you put something out there it's on the internet forever. People are like, 'But you said...' Well, I might be thinking differently now."

She did stick her head above the parapet on the subject of tights with her decision last year to wear brown, skin-colored tights rather than pink ones for all her performances. It didn't make sense to her to break up the line of her body, and the decision was supported by ENB, but not all traditionalists agreed. "There are still a lot of black dancers who don't understand why I want to wear skin-tone tights," she says. "They don't see the need. In my mind, it's so logical."

Adams is a logical woman. Even though she's admittedly not a planner, I ask her where she'd like to be in the next decade or so. "It's hard," she says, "because what I want is probably so unrealistic, I don't even like to say it." I assume she's thinking about major principal roles, but she has other ideas. "I know I want to have a family, I want to own property, I want to have a master's degree," she says. "A small business, so that when I transition out of my dance career it's not this devastating thing."

Adams as The Chosen One in Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring

Lauren Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

Hang on, that sounds like someone making plans to me. Adams clearly sees the bigger picture in terms of her happiness. "I've heard [ENB principal] Alina Cojocaru talk about how she's gone through periods where she was sick with anxiety before going onstage. All that pressure that can come with being a principal dancer, for it to go from something that you love to a burden. It's just ballet," she says. "I mean, it's my whole world," she quickly adds, "but I would hate for it to become something that causes me grief."

Not that there's any doubt Adams is wholly committed to her vocation. Friends and coaches all talk about her work ethic. "She's such a hard worker, the determination there is incredible," says ENB's artistic coordinator Jane Haworth. "Every time I see her she's doing exercises," agrees fellow dancer Fernando Carratalá Coloma. "She really pushes herself in rehearsal, and she's always really focused."

Adams with Aaron Robison in William Forsythe's Approximate Sonata

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

Yet for all that serious focus, they also tell me how funny Adams is. She jokes dryly in our interview when I ask what she does outside of dance. "I wish I had a really interesting answer for you. 'Oh, I paint these beautiful murals!' But I don't. I just read, cook, watch Netflix."

There's little time for much else until she's ticked some more items off her bucket list: "I want to be Juliet someday," she says. "And Roland Petit's Carmen." She thinks for a moment. "And I want to do a lot of Balanchine, as well. Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux—I wanna do it!" And with her talent, drive and patience, it's hard to imagine she won't.

Training Around the World

English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams had an unusual training trajectory—throughout her adolescence, she studied full-time at three of the world's major ballet academies. "I have a really diverse understanding of the different syllabuses and techniques, which helps to make me a versatile dancer," says Adams.

● Canada's National Ballet School: At age 11, Adams left her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to train in Toronto for two years. NBS incorporates elements from various classical ballet and contemporary techniques.

● Princess Grace Academy: At 14, she was accepted to Monaco's Princess Grace Academy, where she studied until age 16. "There I learned the French style," she says, which emphasizes lower leg and foot articulation. "It's a cleaner port de bras but not as reserved as the RAD style."

● Bolshoi Ballet Academy: Adams then trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow until she was 18, where she studied under Irina Syrova and Marina Leonova. (She also learned to speak Russian.) "That's where I got a lot more of my flexibility from and a more expansive port de bras."

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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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