Izabella Tokev and Khaiyom Khojaev in Waltzes Once Forgotten by Mate Szentes

Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet

Richmond Ballet Is Back Onstage. Here’s How the Company Is Making It Work

It's a rare ballet company that can present three months of in-person performances despite (and amidst) the chaos of 2020. Against the odds, Richmond Ballet is doing just that, pulling off a COVID-era adaptation of its perennial Studio Series. Arriving at Richmond Ballet's Studio Theatre on a recent Thursday evening, I fully expected to feel discouraged by a highly, um, sanitized version of live dance performance. But dancers, artistic staff and audience members alike seem to be adjusting fast to the necessary precautions. After a few minutes, the dancers' masks and socially distant spacing mostly faded into the background.

For artistic director Stoner Winslett, it was never an option to cancel the entire season or go all-digital. "Our mission as a company is to awaken and uplift the human spirit," Winslett says. "Especially with the recent social unrest in our Richmond community and around the world, at this moment, we just didn't feel that being closed was right."


Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet

Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis in alone, beside me by Ma Cong

When the state of Virginia reached Phase Three of reopening in July, Winslett convened Richmond Ballet's 14 main-company members on Zoom to ask how they felt about returning to the studio. The response was, according to fourth-year veteran Eri Nishihara, cautiously enthusiastic—especially once RB's medical task force came up with a full battery of recommendations for dancers' safe return to work. "Since we're a small company, we were able to stay 10 feet apart in the studio, and we've been wearing masks ever since returning," Nishihara says.

After a few weeks of reconditioning, the dancers—now divided into two daily "pods" so performances can continue in the event of infection—began rehearsing for a total reimagining of the postponed May Studio Series. The new criteria for the one-hour show, now without an intermission: only married couples or roommates performing pas de deux, choreographic selections that lean heavily on solos and trios, and masks mandated for everyone in the building. Excerpts from company favorites, like Dennis Spaight's Gloria and Val Caniparoli's Street Songs, were rehearsed in person and performed with minor tweaks to spacing (plus masks, added to the preexisting costume design). Premieres by company members were choreographed in the studio, while a Ma Cong premiere was rehearsed via Zoom.

Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet

Sabrina Holland in Waltzes Once Forgotten by Mate Szentes

Other than the music lag that dancers are now all too familiar with, virtual rehearsing went off largely without a hitch, says Nishihara. For the wrenchingly emotional Solas, originally created by Salvatore Aiello for his wife, Marina Eglevsky, Nishihara and her Pod 2 counterpart, Elena Bello, were coached by Eglevsky herself, albeit from afar. "It was amazing how many fine-tuned nuances can still be delivered through screens," Nishihara says.

The two company dancers who made pieces for the September Studio Series took their inspiration from the current moment. For his Waltzes Once Forgotten, Mate Szentes imagined a sepia photograph from the Spanish-flu era come to life. Matthew Frain created a solo, called To This Day, drawing explicitly on the Black Lives Matter movement and how diversity makes us stronger. Nishihara feels that all the coronavirus-related changes and additions create a different kind of performance, but not a lesser one: "What I'm finding to be really exciting is that because we can't dance in big groups, each of us is getting to shine more in solos than we normally would."

But how does it feel to be dancing your heart out for a masked audience in a near-empty auditorium? (Studio Theatre seating is down from 250 to 64 to allow for social distancing, and there's little to no lobby lingering or mingling amongst audience members.) "It was a little weird, but I could still feel the audience's energy," Nishihara says. "If anything, we're dancing more than ever before for each other, as dancers."

One pleasant surprise was that masks don't cancel out as much facial expression as she might've expected: "People have told me that a lot of emotion still translated through our eyes, which was nice to hear."

Courtesy Richmond Ballet

A graphic of Richmond Ballet's safety procedures

After the success of the September Studio Series (which could also be viewed through a streaming link up to one week after the performance), Winslett's ambitions for October performances—running now through the 25th—include the addition of four RB II dancers to each pod, and adding more virtual viewing offerings for patrons uncomfortable with attending in person.

Company members and staff alike are sacrificing in order to put their art first, just as ballet dancers everywhere have long done. "We've agreed as an organization that we have to behave like we're still in a soft quarantine," Nishihara says. "We're not going anywhere other than the studio, the doctor and the grocery store."

Beyond that continuing routine, it's too soon to say what might be possible come November. Though programming for the November Studio Series has been chosen, "any plan longer than a week from now is a long-range plan these days," Winslett says, laughing.

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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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