The Second Invasion

In her senior year of high school, Michelle Thompson, a student at the San Francisco Ballet School, went on “tons of auditions,” but soon found she needed to widen her search; after only one girl was chosen from her class of 25 to join SFB, Thompson decided to attend Ballet Austin’s summer intensive program. By summer’s end, she was one of six girls selected to join Ballet Austin II.

Now 23, Thompson is in her fourth season with Ballet Austin, and credits her second company experience with building confidence and providing training in contemporary partnering. “Coming from San Francisco Ballet, I had a lot going for me, but Ballet Austin II helped me develop,” she says. “It was a bridge for me.”

Stories like Thompson’s have become more common as the number of second companies has grown. While the reasons for this trend may vary, artistic directors usually cite the growing number of dancers needing jobs and the availability of funding to support supervisory positions. Maintaining a second company is also efficient; with a supply of homegrown dancers available to swell the ranks during big productions, main companies can be smaller. Second companies are also often vital in executing public education programs that boost community presence and may even generate income.

For the most part, artistic directors and dancers laud the merits of second companies, including extensive performing and technical fine-tuning for young dancers learning the ins and outs of company life. But they also acknowledge the drawbacks: low pay—or no pay—and the distinct possibility that a company job won’t follow a second company gig. “Obviously,” Thompson points out, “they can’t tell you at the beginning of the year if they will have a spot for you.”

Second companies are nothing new. Formed in 1968, Joffrey II (now defunct) was the first to open in the U.S., followed six years later by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II. The last 10 years, however, have seen a rise in second companies, and now most large- and medium-sized companies in the U.S. have them (see page 88 for a listing of second companies).

The structure of each second company varies. BAII members are considered apprentices to the main company, while Pennsylvania Ballet II members are not—although both supplement the main company’s performances and tour independently. Ailey II’s 12 dancers, who will perform in more than 45 cities this season, no longer join first company productions, and the second company has four unpaid apprentices of its own. And members of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company—whose focus is training over outreach—become apprentices only when they join the main company.

“Everybody has a different kind of system,” says BA Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin. “If you try and put it all together and figure out if there’s a continuum, I’m not sure there is.”

Among the second companies that exist now, pay is a big issue. Alan Gordon, executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, says, “The problem is that most ballet companies treat those dancers as students,” who, he adds, are in the in-between stage of their careers. AGMA, however, can only negotiate on behalf of dancers recognized as employees.

Because of this, BAII makes it a point to be upfront, both at auditions and post-hire. Audition forms break down all company components, and auditions are followed with 10-minute Q&A sessions.

BAII dancers are apprentices who take company class and do four to five productions of their own each spring, sign a 34-week, non-union contract and receive $150 to 200 per week. Their days end at 3:30 pm, which allows for second jobs. While many take on babysitting and catering work, Martin says, “We try and encourage them to look beyond what’s automatically an easy thing and to use their skills [that are not related to dance] in another area they’re interested in pursuing.”

On the other hand, Martin points to the benefits, such as the individual attention and feedback her dancers receive, such as conferences, goal-setting sessions and self evaluation. “Our goal for them is to develop as artists. There has to be something in it for them. It can’t be about Ballet Austin using kids to go out and demonstrate. It is incumbent on us to provide resources to position them to be successful. Sometimes it’s helping them see that they won’t fit in the industry where they think they will fit.”

Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet has no second company. Former artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell decided against it, worried it would distract young dancers. PNB Professional Division students “were in the big productions, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker—but not all the time,” Russell says. “We wanted them to understand their main purpose was to complete their training. I think it’s wonderful for them to perform, but they’re still students.”

BAII’s Martin agrees, though she says, “That’s why each year we make little changes to better serve the dancers and us. It can be distracting. There was a time when they would be in some school cafeteria [doing outreach] and not getting a full class. We scaled back. It’s a balance.”

But for Kirk Peterson, ABT Studio Company’s artistic director, there’s no substitute for getting onstage. “Personally, I find dancers who’ve performed a lot have it much easier,” he says. To him, joining a company fresh out of school is like being thrown “into the deep end of the pool,” because professional dancers get so little personal attention. 

“Of course, it’s essential to focus on their technique,” Peterson emphasizes, giving the example of one boy who doesn’t yet have sufficient upper body strength for partnering. While ABT staff helps him overcome that, he’ll do what’s appropriate for his level of development onstage.

One of Peterson’s goals is to nail down more performance opportunities during the summer months. His 12 dancers, who are ages 17 to 20, supplement the main company’s Metropolitan Opera House season after their eight-month contracts end in April. During the 2006-07 season, the Studio Company will perform at an AIDS benefit, universities, in various Nutcrackers and a gala in Bermuda. They’ll also take part in a three-week residency at White Oak in Florida and perform new choreography by Adam Hougland, Peterson’s Eyes That Gently Touch and Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. (The Studio Company is the first second company to receive permission to dance the Tudor ballet.)

Opportunity is a big bonus at Pennsylvania Ballet II. In 2005, PBII joined the main company to perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Closer to home, the company performs 25 to 30 times a year, and the roles can be big. Ian Hussey, a former PBII member who became a company apprentice in 2006, danced Black Swan pas de deux variations while still in the second company. In addition to learning variations, Hussey says he prized working on big jumps and partnering in the
junior company. “It’s a skill that’s difficult and important,” he emphasizes. “It can make or break your career.”

“I wish I had had this experience when I was a young dancer,” says PBII Director William DeGregory, a former Pennsylvania Ballet principal. “They’re doing outreach stuff with me they’d never touch if they were a corps member: soloist and pas de deux roles, partnering and pointe work.”

Calling it a win-win situation for all, DeGregory wonders why every company doesn’t maintain a second company.

“I think it works fantastically,” he says. “It’s a great, great learning vehicle.”  

Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.

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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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