Tiler Peck photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Tiler Peck: Her Career, Her Romance, Her Broadway Plans...And Her Dogs

This is Pointe's August/September 2014 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

A few months ago, Tiler Peck turned 25. It's an age when most ballet dancers are earning their first breakout roles, gradually discovering who they are onstage.

Not Peck. She followed an uncommonly accelerated path to the spotlight, joining New York City Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 at age 15 and becoming a principal in 2009. An enormously versatile dancer with prodigious technical gifts, she already has an enviable ballet resumé. She knows exactly who she is on NYCB's stage.

Yet Peck has an appetite for challenges that has led her outside the ballet world. Her growing list of musical theater credits isn't a surprise to longtime fans: Peck started out in jazz and commercial work, earning a role in director/choreographer Susan Stroman's production of The Music Man on Broadway when she was just 11. She and her husband, fellow NYCB principal Robert Fairchild, had a well-received turn in the New York Philharmonic's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel last year, which was later broadcast on PBS.

In October, Peck will take on her biggest theatrical challenge to date: She's set to dance (and sing and act) the title role in the new musical Little Dancer at the Kennedy Center. The project reunites her with Stroman, who custom-tailored Little Dancer—the story of the student who inspired Edgar Degas' iconic sculpture—to Peck. “I was envisioning Tiler even as we were writing it," Stroman says. “From the earliest stages, it was always her in my mind."


In a way, Peck is a throwback to crossover dancers from 50 years ago. She's a modern-day Vera Zorina, with that dare-you-to-look-away star quality many of today's ballerinas lack. There is a certain hardness to that kind of glitter; Peck has yet to master the more soulful roles of the classical repertoire, and Broadway's razzle-dazzle seems unlikely to deepen that side of her artistry. But few performers feel as at home singing Rodgers and Hammerstein as they do dancing Balanchine. What other 25-year-old could inspire a Broadway director to conceive a musical for her while simultaneously serving as a muse for contemporary ballet choreographers? Peck is a true stage animal.


Peck with Amar Ramasar in Justin Peck's "Everywhere We Go." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.


Navigating her jam-packed schedule—at the moment, she's essentially working two full-time jobs as she rehearses for Little Dancer's opening—requires exceptional drive. That's never been a problem for Peck. Even as a young child studying jazz and other styles at her mother's dance studio in Bakersfield, California, she was always hungry for more opportunities. In her jazz classes, she discovered the freedom that now characterizes her performances at NYCB. “I think that background gave me something unique—it kept me from being afraid," she says. “In jazz, you're throwing your body around all the time. You learn to just go for it."

At 7, Peck began studying with former Bolshoi dancer Alla Khaniash­vili. Though it took her a while to warm up to ballet—“I was always 'sick' when it was time for ballet class," she remembers—her mother insisted that she develop a solid technical foundation. Later Peck worked with former NYCB dancers Yvonne Mounsey and Colleen and Patricia Neary, who introduced her to Balanchine technique.

At the time, however, Peck was more interested in commercial work. When she got the call for The Music Man audition, she figured it was a long shot—previously, the role of mayor's daughter Gracie Shinn had been played by an 18-year-old—but ended up booking the job. She moved to New York for a year to perform in the show, accompanied by her grandmother. While in New York, Peck began studying at the School of American Ballet, and found that she relished the difficulty of Balanchine's style. A few years later, she enrolled in the school's full-time program.

Peck loved living with like-minded ballet students, including Fairchild, in the school's dorms. “It was like college, but at 14," she says, laughing. Soon Fairchild became her first boyfriend. He also came from the jazz world—they'd first met a few years earlier in a jazz class at Steps on Broadway. “What we felt for each other was so big that at that age, we didn't know what to do with it," Peck says. They were an on-again, off-again couple for years. “I always knew she was the one," Fairchild says, “but we both needed to grow up a little."


Peck as Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.


At 15, Peck became a NYCB apprentice, and a few months later she joined the corps de ballet. Before long, artistic director Peter Martins had cast her as the lead in his Friandises, a showcase for rising corps dancers. Roles began coming thick and fast; Martins felt she was ready. “You would have to have your eyes closed not to recognize Tiler's gifts," he says. “Even at a very young age, she had an uncanny ability to understand the essence of each ballet—be it classical, romantic, contemporary, or neoclassical."

Peck was just 20 when she became a principal. A couple years later, Stroman arrived at the NYCB studios to choreograph a new work, Frankie and Johnny…and Rose, with Peck at its center. By then Stroman had already begun thinking about Little Dancer. When Stroman asked Peck to participate in the musical's workshop, the ballerina was initially taken aback. “I knew I wanted to come back to musical theater eventually, but I thought it would be something I'd do later on, a transition out of ballet," she says. “I love City Ballet, and I have so much more to accomplish here." Still, she found herself drawn to the show's story, which follows the spirited Paris Opéra Ballet student who posed for Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen sculpture. Stroman and Martins worked together to ensure that none of her work on Little Dancer, which has a limited run at the Kennedy Center, would conflict with her NYCB schedule. “I didn't want to choose one or the other—I wanted it all," she says. “I'm so happy that somehow it worked out."

Peck and Fairchild also worked out: In June, they married in New York City. Over the past few years, as they began dating seriously, they have danced together with increasing frequency, both at NYCB and on side gigs. “Not only do we have a great time together—she laughs at my jokes!—but we also push each other to be better," Fairchild says. Peck appreciates that the two of them share the same drive. “When I'm working with other partners, I'll say maybe five of the 10 things I want to fix," she says. “With Robbie, we're so close that we can both say it all, and make everything as perfect as possible."
Though Peck sees more Broadway in her distant future, her current goals remain ballet-focused. She still dreams of conquering the dramatic roles that have so far eluded her, particularly Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She has also enjoyed showing more of her natural persona onstage through the vibrant ballets of Justin Peck. There are more ballet mountains for her to climb, and she's not a timid mountaineer.

“The thing about Tiler is that you always have fun watching her onstage," Fairchild says. “She works incredibly hard in the studio, and that's how she's become such a powerful artist. But by the time she gets to the performance, there are no nerves. You know it's going to be spot on."

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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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