Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

Training Grounds

Melendez was born and raised in Tampa, Florida, where she danced from age 4 at a small recreational studio. "I did everything from ballet to contemporary, jazz to acro," says Melendez. At 8, she switched to All American Dance Factory and Classical Ballet School, studying and competing in the standard comp-kid fare of jazz, acro, contemporary and hip hop. Yet Melendez found herself drawn to ballet's clear structure. "My first ballet competition was Youth America Grand Prix in 2011," she remembers. "I did it on flat because that was my first year on pointe." Before long, she became a regular in the top five at ADC|IBC, World Ballet Competition, YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance.

Melendez says there wasn't any one lightbulb moment that made her realize ballet was her dream. But that doesn't mean the ballet world wasn't taking notice of her. In 2015, the Ballet West Academy had already offered 15-year-old Tatiana admission to their year-round program when she was spotted at ADC|IBC by Houston Ballet II's ballet master Claudio Muñoz, who was judging. "My eyes went right to Tatiana, because her jumps and turns had phenomenal energy," Muñoz recalls. That "raw, incredible talent" netted Melendez a full scholarship to the Professional Program at Houston Ballet Academy. After taking time to consider Houston Ballet's rep (contemporary-leaning), her connection with Muñoz (strong and encouraging), and friends' testimonials about the year-round program (glowing), Melendez moved into student housing.

Tatiana Melendez, wearing a shiny gold leotard, stands on her left leg on pointe and kicks her bent right leg head height behnd her.

Jayme Thornton

In Houston, Melendez saw no shortage of stage time. She was cast in The Nutcracker and Stanton Welch's Cinderella, on top of all her academy performances. She was also one of a few academy dancers picked by company member Oliver Halkowich for his contemporary piece Full Circle.

Between shows, she worked hard. "At my competition studio, we never had pas de deux or full pointe classes," Melendez says. "The grueling academy schedule really polished my technique." Muñoz says that in just two years Melendez transformed her own dancing: "Tatiana is the most incredible hard worker I ever saw. She became a beautiful swan, with a classical heart and contemporary soul."

Tatiana Melendez, in a denim skirt and striped tank top, sits cross-legged on a white box and smiles toward the camera.

Jayme Thornton

Going Pro, With Cons

After graduation, Melendez headed to Fort Worth, where she'd landed a trainee contract with Texas Ballet Theater. It was a tough transition. "I went from training all day every day, to one morning class followed by standing on the side during hours of rehearsal," she says. Melendez's gifts were far from ignored, though. As a trainee, she danced in the corps of productions like Swan Lake and Beauty and the Beast, was one of six lead women in Ben Stevenson's world premiere Martinu Pieces, and led multiple performances of The Nutcracker as Clara.

At the end of the season, however, Melendez's worst nightmare came true. Her contract was not renewed because, at 5' 1", she was considered too short for the company. "My height had always been an insecurity," Melendez says. "Once, at a ballet competition, someone told me as I came offstage that I would never make it because I'm 'not built for dance.' "

Three women performing onstage, wearing embellished black leotards, do piqu\u00e9 attitude on pointe under a red spotlight.

From left: Candy Tong, Melendez and Eriko Sugimura in Dwight Rhoden's Love Rocks

Justin Chao, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary ballet

Disappointed, Melendez threw herself into auditioning for classically based companies—only to be told over and over that, while her technique was great, her size was a nonstarter. "Being told 'no' so many times was really discouraging, because my height is something I can't change," she says. Melendez had even started talking herself into taking a year off from dance when she decided at the last minute to attend Complexions' open call in New York City. "Complexions was always a dream in the back of my head, but I never thought it'd be attainable—it wasn't even on my list of places to audition," she remembers.

Taking Flight

Thus began what Melendez calls the hardest, happiest two days of her life. More than 400 dancers showed up to the Complexions' open call in April 2018, but after technique classes and "the fastest I've had to learn choreography, ever," Melendez made it all the way through the final cut. By the end of the two nonstop days, she felt sure that Rhoden's daring, athletic contemporary movement was her true calling—but still assumed she wouldn't get the job.

She needn't have worried. As Desmond Richardson, Complexions' co-founder and co-artistic director says, "Tatiana clearly made her presence known from the moment she walked through the door. I remember Dwight and I saying, 'Wow, she's really something.' Her professionalism, her innate sense of musicality and the sheer force of her were quite nostalgic to me." Rhoden adds, "What made Tatiana stand out was her fearlessness. She applied corrections, dynamics and ideas immediately in the audition. She knows how to cross the t's and dot the i's."

On a darkened stage, a male dancer in black shorts lifts a leaping female dancer in the air.

Simon Plant and Melendez performing Dwight Rhoden's WOKE

Stephen Pisano, Courtesy Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Melendez says that joining Complexions was a complete 180, in the best way possible. Because the company is made up of just 17 dancers, she and other new members were immediately thrown into learning repertoire, performing across the country and internationally, and collaborating with Rhoden in the studio. "Working with Dwight one-on-one is incredible," she says. "Performing choreography actually made on you, using your strengths, is so satisfying. Especially in this work called WOKE that's about issues of social justice, I've really had to dig deep and bring a different dancer out from within myself."

Though she's occasionally felt homesick for the classics, Melendez believes that dancing with Complexions allows her to dance as the fully mature version of herself. "As much as Clara was a fun role, and as much as I love watching classical ballet, I don't want to always be typecast as a little girl," she explains.

After a season and a half of whirlwind touring (so far to New Zealand, Europe and throughout the U.S.) and intense creative process, Melendez's newfound routine with Complexions has sadly been put on pause in the age of the coronavirus. At home in Tampa with family, she has used the hiatus to pursue her other creative passions of drawing and photography, and to teach Complexions rep as part of the company's virtual offerings. Melendez is looking forward to getting back to work with Complexions, and to continued guest appearances with classical companies, like Italy's Roma City Ballet. "Growing up, I thought I had to focus on just ballet or just contemporary if I wanted to be good," she says. "Now I see that having kept my feet in both worlds will help me dance as many roles as I can for as many choreographers as I can to the fullest capacity I can—which is all I've ever wanted to do." We'd like to see someone try to stop her.

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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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