The Bewitching Ekaterina Kondaurova

One of the best moments of last April’s Youth America Grand Prix gala at New York’s City Center came in the evening’s second act. Kirov artists Ekaterina Kondaurova and Islom Baimuradov were dancing Alexei Ratmansky’s hypnotic Middle Duet. They’d reached the point where the man and the woman separate and each dance alone in a windowpane of light projected on a dark stage. Then suddenly, Kondaurova leapt out of her space into his with a huge grand jeté unfurled in darkness, collapsing in the light over her partner’s arm.

I’ve seen this leap in Middle Duet done by other dancers many times. But this time it astonished me. It seemed to come from deep inside the ballerina, from the same private place where all the wavelike, hypnotic steps of the dance came. At 5’8”, the 26-year-old second soloist is unusual among a handful of rising Kirov stars. Kondaurova is breathtakingly dramatic, yet she doesn’t “dramatize.” She never signals to the audience that this or that is going to be a showy move. She just does the steps, full out, yet somehow naturally, with all the gorgeous and unabashed physicality of her long body. And her total immersion in the dancing itself has made her not just the queen of the Kirov’s contemporary repertoire, but a radical presence in the classics, as well.

“She’s more spontaneous onstage than most of her colleagues,” says Ratmansky (now American Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence). “So it often looks like she’s improvising, though it’s actually well-rehearsed. She is a modern girl, which is a rarity among Russian dancers—she’s not a princess. And she brings that quality to classical works too, the quality of a contemporary woman, not a fairytale beauty.” 

What’s ironic about this ballerina’s story is that she almost didn’t get to dance at all. Born in Moscow, not in St. Petersburg, to an optician father and a mother who stayed home to raise two kids, Kondaurova progressed through gymnastics, piano and little kids’ dance before applying to the Bolshoi Ballet School. But they didn’t take her. At that time the Soviet Union was falling apart, and entrance to the Bolshoi School required a bribe. A Bolshoi teacher told Kondaurova’s mother they should try the ballet academy in the other city—St. Petersburg. The historic Vaganova Academy took the young girl. Her mother moved there with her and stayed until Kondaurova was old enough to live in the dormitory.

“I was never sorry,” Kondaurova says, smiling her enigmatic half-smile, as she folds herself into a chair. Up close her body is striking—lean and long in fitted jeans and a rugby T-shirt, thin yet seemingly alive with sensual power. But the girl herself—with a thick red braid down her back, wide-set hazel eyes and a pointed chin—seems somehow hidden way inside. It’s as if that total availability onstage shrinks to a private place when she’s offstage. She’s not guarded, just quietly poised and polite, smiling that Mona Lisa smile. Or maybe she can hang back because her Middle Duet partner and husband Baimuradov (a principal character dancer at the Kirov) is sitting next to her. Nine years older than Kondaurova, he seems to be watching over her with his keen blue eyes. And making sure, with his fluent English, that her Russian is understood by the interviewer.

 “I never wanted to go back—even if I was known at first as ‘that girl from Moscow,’ ” she says in Russian. “There’s this girl and this girl”—she imitates a teacher’s imperious glance—“and over there, ‘that girl from Moscow.’ ”

But the Moscow-outsider status soon disappeared. Kondaurova moved up through the Vaganova Academy, acquired those graceful Kirov head and arms, and in 2001 made it, despite fierce competition from classmates, into the Kirov corps de ballet.

Rising in the Kirov, though (sometimes called the “graveyard of ballerinas”), is even harder than getting in. Kondaurova might have stayed semi-buried in the corps, doing the occasional variation, had the company not made a tour to Frankfurt in late 2003. A man came up to her and praised her performance after she’d danced the slow variation in Paquita. “I didn’t know he was William Forsythe!” she says, as if still surprised. A year later, Forsythe, a known admirer of Amazonian ballerinas, came to St. Petersburg to set three of his works on the Kirov. “And suddenly there I was, in everything,” says Kondaurova. As a near-unknown, she danced the Kirov premiere of Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated—to rave reviews. What followed were starring roles in all the “on the edge” ballets the company has acquired since then, by Forsythe, Ratmansky, Simonov….

Kondaurova still loves those spiky modern roles. “They give you the freedom to be yourself, to open yourself onstage,” she says. What wasn’t so welcome, though, was the stamp they put on her: Contemporary, Not Classical. “For a while, I didn’t get the big classical parts, like Corsaire and Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty,” she says quietly. Luckily, Kondaurova’s coach, Olga Chenchikova, taught her the classical roles in private. Former prima ballerinas themselves, the Kirov coaches teach their protégées roles in one-on-one rehearsals, and also lobby to get them onstage. Chenchikova, herself a tall, imposing former ballerina, helped the young Kondaurova learn how to handle a long body in a pas de deux.

Baimuradov leans forward proudly. “It’s easy to dance with Katya,” he says, using his wife’s nickname, “because Olga taught her to do it all herself.” 

“Yes,” Kondaurova breaks in eagerly, as if sharing something she believes in strongly. “You as ballerina have to work too. You have to hold your body, use your legs. Lots of people say ‘Lift me!’ to their partner—then they just do some pretty arms. You can’t give yourself the idea that he does it all.”

This work ethic is slowly erasing any contemporary-roles-only type-casting. “Katya is smart,” says Kirov director Yuri Fateev. She now dances a lot of Balanchine, that part of the repertoire that hovers, in Russian minds, between classical and contemporary. She loves the Balanchine roles: Serenade, Symphony in C, all three parts of Jewels. “But you can’t just step to the side onstage in these ballets like some people do, just executing the steps,” she says firmly. “You can’t dance Balanchine ‘presso,’ dry, ‘without salt and sugar.’ You have to put your personality into the steps.”

Kondaurova has also “seasoned” certain Russian classical variations (in Paquita, La Bayadère) in her own way. When she danced these in the Kirov’s New York City Center season last spring, she was “adopted,” as The New York Observer’s Robert Gottlieb put it, “by New Yorkers in the know.” New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay called Kondaurova “the Kirov’s best dancer.” 

“New York,” says Kondaurova, glowing, “gave me confidence.” And then, last fall at home, she got her first Swan Lake, and reportedly gave Odile, the evil black-swan side of the dual role, a boldness of attack that might come easier to a modern girl than the underwater tenderness of Odette. Still, the rest will come. “It’s very nice that the Mariinsky management has started giving her big classical roles,” says Ratmansky, “so that she can develop her already interesting qualities.”

But with all that work, all those new roles—what about free time?

“Free time?” Kondaurova and Baimuradov both roll their eyes in comic unison, meaning there’s never enough of it. “On a free day,” they say almost together, “we don’t go out from home! We do ‘haute couture’ in the kitchen. Very special food, nicely decorated.” 
“And we read everything we can get our hands on about home design.” After they married in March 2008—in the morning, before company class!—Baimuradov explains, all they had was one cabinet and a mattress on the floor. Now they’re always adding new accents, collaborating on a home. 

“Recently I came home from Taiwan to find all our radiators were gold. She’d painted them!” says Baimuradov. Kondaurova returns his smile, opening out from Mona Lisa to pure glee.

“And we walk,” they both lean forward, excitement in their eyes. “We can walk for hours and hours, around our own neighborhood in St. Petersburg, in Barcelona, in any city we find ourselves.”

“We like new experience,” she says, summing it up for them both. “Some people in the company come to New York, and they go to a Russian restaurant! It’s like choreography,” she adds. “I want to do everything. I would not refuse any role.”

Elizabeth Kendall is a dance writer based in New York, at work on a book about George Balanchine and Lidiia Ivanova.

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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.

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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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