Nikisha Fogo and Julian MacKay rehearsing Helgi Tomasson's new work at San Francisco Ballet

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

What These Dancers Learned From 2020

For dance—and the world at large—2020 has been one of the most challenging years in recent memory. Yet its stops, starts and slowdowns brought reflection, introspection and growth. Pointe asked three dancers what this year taught them about themselves.

​​Nikisha Fogo, San Francisco Ballet​​

Nikisha Fogo stands in a studio with her right arm extended, wearing a leotard and long skirt

Nikisha Fogo and Julian MacKay rehearsing Helgi Tomasson's new work at San Francisco Ballet

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

I've really had to get to know who I am outside of the stage and ballet studio. Who am I when I'm not dancing? Until now, I've been so focused on my craft and being the best dancer I can be. Discovering who I am and could be as a human being was both daunting and exciting.

So many things this year have been uncertain and out of our control. I normally have my whole year planned ahead of time. I would know which ballets I would dance, where I would travel, etc., but this year we have been forced to live in the now and take each day as it comes, which I believe isn't such a bad thing. We all probably needed to do more of it.

I really learned that I should focus and put more energy on the things that I actually can control, like where I direct and spend my energy, how I speak to and treat myself and others, my mental health, well-being and taking time to reach out to loved ones, just to name a few.

Things can happen differently from how you'd planned them, but I don't want this year to have gone to waste! You can learn from every situation that life throws at you, and I am grateful to have been able to start a new life in San Francisco despite these uncertain times. Giving myself something to focus on, whether it be how I best use my time outside of work, or get the best out of the work we do, has been very important.

I think that we can dive deeper into learning more about ourselves without our regular work, which in turn can influence the variety of emotions that we can bring to the stage. I'm excited to see how the art form evolves after this huge life experience that has affected us all. I'm looking forward to it.

Karina González, Houston Ballet

Karina Gonz\u00e1lez jumps across a stage, wearing a pink tutu and a crown

Houston Ballet principal Karina González as the Sugar Plum Fairy with artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's The Nutcracker

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

This year was a roller coaster of emotions and a learning experience. One of the most important things that I learned this year was to enjoy the present. I have followed a daily routine since my early years as a professional dancer, where everything was calculated by days, weeks and the schedule of the season. Even when I became a mom, I tried to keep the same routine as much as possible. So when we went into lockdown and the performances were canceled, I entered into a panicked mode. Thankfully, my incredible husband was there to touch my shoulder and say, 'This time is the best gift for you, our little daughter and our family.'

This year and the time spent with my family is everything that I needed. I learned that it is okay not to follow a routine, and sometimes the unusual brings magical moments too. I also learned that, right now, the best and most important gift of life is to be healthy and to be next to the people that you love the most.

Katlyn Addison, Ballet West

Katlyn Addison poses onstage in arabesque en pointe, with two children holding flowers

Ballet West soloist Katlyn Addison in Cinderella

Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

The year 2020 has unexpectedly become an exploratory period of achieving goals that I never thought I'd be brave enough to pursue in such a short period of time.

At the beginning of the year, I completed my exchange dancing with Scottish Ballet in the title role of The Snow Queen. By March, when everything shut down, my body needed the break; I was mentally and physically exhausted. I did not expect this deadly virus, which has cost so many heartbreaking and devastating deaths, to continue longer than a few months.

During the time away from dancing, I had many emotional roller coasters about whether this was the right industry and career path. I took a few months away from Utah, where Ballet West is located, to visit my family in Canada. I will never forget my dad encouraging me while on our evening golf course walks, saying, 'Kat, this is your time right now. The world is your oyster. Go after what you want; why not now? Go create!' Those simple, kind words changed my perspective and desires. I realized that I needed to take care of myself, surround myself with positivity, develop healthier relationships, support the people who are important to me, trust and keep believing in my dreams.

Once I found my groundedness, I jumped into some of my goals. I became an ABT Certified Teacher for Pre-Primary through Level 7, painted two Black Lives Matter murals, became a board member and coordinator of the nonprofit Utah Black Artists Collective, created a piece for the Black Lives Matter protest "Dance Dance for Evolution," taught for the University of Utah dance department and choreographed a 15-minute ballet on its dancers. I also participated in panel discussions on dismantling systemic racism in the ballet world with Ballet West, Houston Ballet, University of Utah, Salt Lake Magazine, Biscuit Ballerina, Helen Pickett and A Ballet Education.

All of these opportunities had an impact on me, and changed my perspective and belief in my abilities. I allowed myself to share my story, become vulnerable in many situations and explore different creative outlets. I never thought I'd enjoy my dance world as much as I have.

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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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