New company member Ao Wang takes a socially distanced company class at Boston Ballet.

Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet

3 Dancers on What It’s Like to Switch Companies in the Middle of a Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has upended plans for dancers everywhere, but perhaps most so for those who signed on with new ballet companies back at the beginning of this year. Pointe asked three of them what it's really been like to weather the financial precarity, professional pressure and general upheaval of switching companies at a time when performance opportunities are far off, and your work as a dancer is confined to a computer screen.

Ashley Simpson: From Collage Dance Collective to BalletX

A young Black ballerina in a black leotard, booty shorts and black socks sits on the floor with her left leg tucked in and her right leg extended and bent. She holds up a piece of paper that says "TOUCH."

Ashley Simpson on the set of a BalletX Beyond short film by choreographer Francesca Harper

Tara Keating, Courtesy BalletX

I was so happy to join Collage in my senior year of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, but BalletX was always the dream. I'd gone to their summer intensive a few times, so when I happened to tour to Philadelphia in January 2020, I asked artistic and executive director Christine Cox if I could take company class. When they offered me a contract a few months later, it was a no-brainer.

I started in May remotely. I had originally figured the pandemic would be cleared up by then. Instead, I had to move my whole life from Memphis (where Collage is based) to Philadelphia at the beginning of June. Luckily, family was there to help. We flew from our family home in West Palm Beach, Florida (where I was quarantining), to Memphis and drove in a little moving van from Memphis to Philadelphia. At the time, there was a lot of civil unrest and protests in Philadelphia. Stores were closed, and it was hard to find an apartment remotely.

What got me through those first few weeks in BalletX was the whole company being in a Zoom room together to take class. Seeing everyone was almost like the energy of being in the same space. At the end of every class, Christine would ask if we were in a peak or a valley. That check-in felt so necessary. We wouldn't have to talk about what was wrong, but we'd send our love to that person. Since then, we've been able to take outdoor class at Cherry Street Pier, rehearse for and shoot dance films, and pod together so we can go into the studios a few at a time. There's one thing I'm grateful for amidst this hardship: Normally, you're thrown into everything, so it was nice to have a slow introduction to the company.

Jonnathan Ramirez: From Tulsa Ballet to Colorado Ballet

A white male danseur in a white and gold Spanish-style bolero jacket and tights, is shown onstage doing an assembl\u00e9 to the right.

Jonnathan Ramirez in Don Quixote

Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet

My fiancée, fellow dancer Jessica Payne, and I were looking to switch to Colorado Ballet because she has family here. Having danced in Tulsa for 10 years, I was very excited to finish the season strong and say goodbye properly to my career there. Instead, we went into a layoff that just didn't end. Jessica and I owned a house in Tulsa, and we worried that it wouldn't sell because of the pandemic. Luckily or unluckily, it sold a week after we put it on the market in March! So we quarantined with her parents in California before moving to Colorado.

Colorado's been badly hit, so most places have been shut down—Colorado Ballet included. The good thing is that it's a very outdoorsy place. It's helped my fiancée and me that we can go for a hike anytime. What's also helpful is that we were thinking about having to dance at home when we chose a place to live here in Denver. The company gave us two pieces of marley, and we got super-lucky with a big space.

I'm from Colombia originally, and I was getting my green card when the pandemic hit. That's been basically halted, and my work permit didn't arrive in time for the start of Zoom rehearsals with Colorado Ballet, so they legally couldn't pay me for my first week. I was so excited to join that I showed up anyway. Other dancers in the company have organized Zoom happy hours and sent us so many messages of support, offering to help with whatever we need. That they'd go out of their way to make us feel welcome in our new company is amazing.

Ao Wang: From Miami City Ballet to Boston Ballet

An Asian ballerina in a face mask, pink leotard, white skirt and pointe shoes does a jet\u00e9 saut\u00e9 with her left foot back in coup\u00e9. Behind her three male dancers in practice clothes wait near the barre.

Ao Wang takes company class at Boston Ballet

Brooke Trisolini, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Because I grew up with Russian training, four years at Miami City Ballet taught me a lot about balance, technique and musicality. Recently, I noticed myself wanting to do more than Balanchine, and the contemporary European rep at Boston Ballet really attracted me. When Mikko Nissinen offered me a contract this spring I signed as quickly as I could!

In any other year, at the end of MCB's season I'd go back home to China for layoff, renew my visa at the consulate, then return to the States. After everything shut down, I tried to book flights back to China (five times!) because I wouldn't start at Boston Ballet until September 21. Each got canceled. The company even had to intervene and help me get a visa to stay in the U.S. It was stressful, in part because family back in China said I should've stayed in my secure position in Miami. Because my lease was up, I stayed with MCB friends until moving to Boston at the beginning of September.

Unfortunately, my time at Boston Ballet started with a letdown: I was called to learn the Sugarplum pas de deux before we learned that Nutcracker was canceled. I just hope opportunities like that will be offered again once we're back to normal. It's hard to prove yourself as a new dancer when there's no chance to perform, but I'm trying my best anyway. I wanted to join this company so badly that even at this "worst" time to join, I'm happy to be where I can learn—and in a city with better Chinese food than Miami!

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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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