(Mark Hutchens and Martha Wirth, courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy)

Colorado Ballet Academy Offers Exceptional Training, No Matter the Format

Let's face it—2020 has been full of surprises. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the dance world to abide by social-distancing measures, ballet schools have had to create innovative approaches to delivering high-quality training. With that in mind, what should aspiring dancers look for in a summer intensive or pre-professional program this coming year?

Colorado Ballet Academy quickly pivoted to a virtual summer program and fall semester this year, and students are thriving thanks to the high level of attention, engagement and mentorship they're receiving from faculty. "We've been concentrating more on fundamentals and placement, and the results are great," says Academy Director Erica Fischbach. "Students have improved in these necessary, foundational aspects even more than in person because of the shift in focus."

Exceptional training, whether it's offered in person or online, is key if you're looking to take your dancing to the next level. But experiences beyond the studio matter, too, which is why you should also take opportunities for career development and personal growth into account.

Top-Notch Training Online, In-Studio, or In-Between

Pre-Professional Division student Heather Ludlow

(Mark Hutchens, courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy)

Colorado Ballet Academy plans to offer an in-person 2021 Summer Intensive Program, while also developing hybrid and virtual options that comply with local, federal and state health mandates. But the program's rigorous training schedule and attentive faculty, led by summer intensive directors John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow, prove that dancers can grow leaps and bounds no matter how their classes are delivered.

Heather Ludlow, 18, auditioned for Colorado Ballet Academy's Summer Intensive and Pre-Professional Division last spring. She attended the intensive virtually from her home in California and now lives full-time in Denver. "I had such an amazing experience at the summer program that it encouraged me to continue my training at Colorado Ballet," she says. "The teachers were very focused on helping us refine our technique and artistry and so eager to help us improve. I wanted to surround myself with people like that, who are encouraging me to pursue my dreams."

In 2021, dancers will have their choice of a two-, three- or five-week intensive. They'll enjoy a full class schedule, including ballet, pointe and variations, partnering, men's class, cross-training, conditioning, modern and character. The three- and five-week intensive students will also rehearse for a performance held at the program's end.

But what perhaps makes Colorado's program unique is the personal interaction students have with faculty. "John and Amanda love to get to know each student as an individual, and mentor as well as teach," says Fischbach. "Each Friday they'll have a wrap-up, where they'll get everybody together and talk about what they've accomplished. It brings the students together and makes them feel like they're valued, instead of just one of hundreds."

"They were there for anything, which I thought was so incredible," says Ludlow. "They went out of their way to help us feel connected with them and with each other."

Heather Ludlow attended Colorado Ballet Academy's Summer Intensive virtually from home.

(Courtesy Ludlow)

Skills Beyond the Studio

(Mark Hutchens and Martha Wirth, courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy)

While the training at Colorado Ballet Academy is paramount, the school's aim is to educate the whole dancer. In addition to weekly wrap-ups with McKerrow and Gardner, summer intensive students can take advantage of optional Saturday drop-in classes, which include technique and a "bonus" class—anything from injury prevention to an improvisation session to interactive guest artist talks. (Guests last summer included Devon Teuscher, Cory Stearns and Sarah Lane.)

These opportunities extend to the Academy's Pre-Professional Division, too. In addition to their rigorous dance schedule, students have a weekly Life Skills class. The aim is to help them navigate the pressures of the professional dance world and explore other careers associated with the arts. Fischbach brings in Colorado Ballet company members to talk about their various career paths, as well as other guests to speak on issues like mental health. "I make sure they know everybody who works behind the scenes at Colorado Ballet, in the marketing department and production," says Fischbach, "and also dancers who've transitioned into other careers. The skills you learn as a dancer are completely applicable to other careers in life."

A Pathway to a Dance Career

(Mark Hutchens and Martha Wirth, courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy)

Colorado Ballet Academy's summer intensive is also the perfect opportunity to get a feel for the organization and be considered for the year-round Pre-Professional Division, especially since dancers take class with the company's artistic team on a regular basis. "We even got to work with artistic director Gil Boggs and ballet masters Maria Mosina and Sandra Brown," says Ludlow.

Once accepted to the Pre-Professional Division, students quickly get used to having lots of stage time—in fact, every five weeks they perform in the company's black-box theater. "The dancers work with a local choreographer or learn something in the classical repertoire," says Fischbach. Dancers finish out the year with a full-length classical performance at Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

There are also opportunities to dance onstage with Colorado Ballet. After one year in the Pre-Professional Division, students are eligible to be selected for a trainee or Studio Company position. "Each year Gil chooses one to three trainees, and they get to perform in almost every production," says Fischbach. "For Nutcracker, he chooses eight more Pre-Professional Division students to dance in 'Snow,' and there are opportunities to audition for extra roles in other productions, like The Wizard of Oz."

Fischbach notes that for the last four years, six Pre-Professional Division dancers have been offered Colorado Ballet Studio Company contracts, a gateway into the main troupe. Case in point: PPD alums Ever Larson and Catherine Aoki were recently promoted from the Studio Company to Colorado Ballet apprentices for the 2020–21 season.

Ludlow hopes to follow in their footsteps. "It's been a vital time in my training as I try to refine my technique and my artistry and make that transition from student to professional. I think the program at Colorado Ballet Academy has been the perfect opportunity to do that."

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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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