Somogyi with Jared Angle in Four Temperaments. Photo by Paul Kolnik. Courtesy NYCB.

True Grit: Why NYCB's Jennie Somogyi Didn't Let Her Injuries Have the Last Word

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of Pointe.

With her natural strength and luscious amplitude, New York City Ballet principal Jennie Somogyi has shone in a wide range of roles since joining the company in 1993. But during her career, she's had three major injuries—and they've been whoppers. Each time, the disaster happened onstage in front of a full house. After the last one, she decided if she did come back, it would be to finish her career “on my own terms." She recovered in time for NYCB's spring season, and will retire October 11 with one of her favorite ballets, Balanchine's Liebeslieder Walzer. Here she shares how she persevered through each recovery with Dance Magazine editor at large Wendy Perron.


​First injury: 2004

My first injury was the hardest. During a performance of Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, I tore the posterior tibial tendon in my left foot, and technically never should have danced again. At City Ballet I was the go-to girl; I did all the hard stuff. I was 15 when I got into the company, and I would never say no. The week I got hurt, I had a debut in "Rubies," a debut in "Emeralds," my complete Swan Lake and Peter Martins' new ballet. I had so many parts they couldn't even divvy them up among the dancers who were there—they had to grab somebody off a plane from Denmark. I think it was a real adjustment for them because it was always, "Somogyi can do it."

I went 11 years in the company before this injury. During that time, I'd see dancers go out and come back too fast, then go out again for three months and come back another month. So when I first got injured, I thought: I'm going to do this right and not get on that roller-coaster ride.

During my recovery, I had to learn to be patient and to listen to my body. If the rehab was too much, I pulled back. And when I progressed to the next level, I'd do a little bit more and keep it at that level for a week or two.

When I did come back—a year and five months later—Peter said, "You look great. Does this mean you can do Swan Lake?" It was hard for me because I totally wanted to do it. But when I started rehearsing, my calf was fatigued from having to do extra work to compensate. I never did Odette/Odile again.

Second injury: 2012

Somogyi with Justin Peck in Balanchine's Liebeslieder Waltz. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

During a matinee of Who Cares?, I felt like my right ankle was sort of jammed. It was seizing up by the finale. My Achilles was really sore, so I went to the physical therapist, who said, "After your show tonight I'll have a look at it." And then in the middle of Polyphonia, pop it went. I heard it. I thought my partner Gonzalo Garcia had kicked me—that's the force I felt! But out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was pretty far away. That's when I knew something was really wrong. I started losing my hearing and my peripheral vision, so I knew I was going into shock. I still have no idea how I walked offstage, but as soon as I got into the wing, I just dropped.

The Achilles tendon rolled up my leg so you could see that it was no longer attached. It wasn't painful at first. When you have a complete rupture there is no feeling because it's not connected. After the repair surgery, then the pain sets in. That was tough.

At this point I had a 3-year-old daughter, so this injury was more stressful. Mommy was completely incapacitated, so she was my little helper. My recovery took about a year, starting with three months of non–weight-bearing crutches, a cast and an orthopedic boot. My physical therapist had an underwater treadmill so that most of my weight was off of my leg. I was walking pretty quickly—about a month ahead of schedule. That got me back to doing barre. The home stretch, with the pointe shoe, was the hardest. I spent a couple weeks just doing relevés. After being off them for so long, your legs atrophy. I felt like Bambi on ice. You're retraining all the little muscles in your legs to work in a new way.

When I could start taking class again, that was a bonus. But it gets frustrating. I'd always been a very natural dancer—I would just visualize what I wanted to do and my body would make it happen. Now I had to think, Okay, how do I do that? You want to be able to do something because you've always been able to. I'd think, I just want to do that step!

​Third injury: 2013

My last injury was the mother of them all. The recovery took a year and a half. I did a jump in the Russian Variation of Swan Lake and felt my left posterior tendon pop again. I thought, Well, that was my last show. Back in 2004, the doctors had removed most of the tendon. This time I had to have an organ donor because there was nothing left to repair. It's not a common procedure, but that was the only option and there were no case studies. Dr. Phillip Bauman, who had done my Achilles repair, finally found a surgeon in Baltimore who was willing to attempt the surgery using a tendon from a cadaver. They'd never done this before, so I was the guinea pig. The surgeon said, "I don't know if I can get you back to the level you were at, but I can try to get you close." Dr. Bauman was in the wings for my first show back. When I finished, he said, "You just made medical history!"

Every time I've come back, it's been like a gift. I was told with each injury that I probably wouldn't be able to dance again. And there's nothing more depressing than doing months and months of physical therapy and not having the reward of being onstage. But I'm a goal-oriented person; once I have a goal, I'm full steam ahead. I never realized the inner strength I had.

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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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