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It takes more than pliés to lift a ballet company to great heights. From dancers to conductors, teachers to makeup artists, this blog series features fascinating insight from ABT experts and an intimate look inside America’s National Ballet Company®. Take a spot at the SideBarre each week to get to know the incredible people behind each bourrée of American Ballet Theatre.

Posts in: MentorsView All Posts
October 20, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"I have been blessed to have many mentors – people who not only believed in me, but quietly guided me towards my 40+ years as a member of ABT’s Artistic Staff."

By Susan Jones

Susan Jones as the Cowgirl in <i>Rodeo</i>. Photo: Kenn Duncan.
Susan Jones as the Cowgirl in Rodeo. Photo: Kenn Duncan.

In my many years with ABT, I have been blessed to have many mentors – people who not only believed in me, but quietly guided me towards my 40+ years as a member of ABT’s Artistic Staff.

As a dancer, choreographer Agnes DeMille chose me to dance The Cowgirl in Rodeo, against director Lucia Chase’s preference for a soloist dancer. Of course, Agnes won that “battle.” Her belief in me brought out my inner voice as an artist while teaching me stagecraft: timing, the importance of stillness, and honesty in one’s intent.

Twyla Tharp was next. I was still in the cast of Push Comes to Shove when she chose me to maintain the ballet. ABT’s management picked up on that, and within a year I became an assistant ballet master. The path was clear.

Misha Baryshnikov made it clearer when he became Artistic Director of ABT. His guidance became my mantra during tough times: “It comes with the job.” His assistant, Charles France, mentored in a different way. He taught me to stand up passionately for my point of view and beliefs.

And last, but certainly not least, Natasha Makarova’s trust in me has helped me to raise the bar and keep it aloft. I’ve learned so much from her – about technique, artistry and the marriage between the two.

All of these remarkable people have left their mark on me and how I work. They established the standards that I adhere to, and they are with me when I enter the studio. Lessons of a lifetime.

Susan Jones serves as Regisseur at ABT. January 2021 will mark 50 years since she joined ABT.

Susan shared stories of working alongside Natalia Makarova in a video for ABT OffStage: A 2020 Virtual Season, available on YouTube!

Former ABT Soloist Rebecca Wright.
Posted In
Get to know...Mentors
September 15, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"Rebecca Wright had a tremendous impact on my career at ABT."

By Dennis J. Walters

Dennis creates unique ballet experiences for children such as our annual <i>ABTKids</i> performance and workshop.
Dennis creates unique ballet experiences for children such as our annual ABTKids performance and workshop.

In 2000, I joined ABT at age 22, a kid right out of college with a resume that I would now be horrified to share with my interns during resume week!

Somehow, I was hired as the Education Coordinator, and on my first day on the job, my boss Mary Jo Ziesel asked if I wanted to teach the next day’s Make a Ballet class at a High School in Newark, NJ.

I had never taught a class. I had no idea what the curriculum was. The students were only a few years younger than me!

In that moment, I instantly realized that I was going to be presented with opportunities at ABT. Every day I found myself in situations that I had neither the experience nor expertise to handle, but I knew that every uncomfortable situation was an opportunity. Every failure was a kernel of information and a lesson to help me grow and succeed in the future.

Each summer, I volunteered to coordinate one of ABT’s Summer Intensive programs in either Alabama, Texas or California. In the early 2000s, the program was run by former ABT Soloist Rebecca Wright, who had a tremendous impact on my career at ABT. Rebecca was a ball of energy that could light up a dance studio or office. She had the uncanny ability to see talent where others didn’t and then find a way to instill confidence in those that needed it.

She saw something in me from the very beginning, and she was always there to encourage me when I was unsure of myself. It sounds strange, but I feel like I can trace my entire career back to a conversation we had over dinner in California in either 2001 or 2002.

“The advice was so simple. She said, ‘If you can instill change in just two things every year, then that is success and you have been successful.'”

This sentence had a profound impact on me. It made me shift my attention away from my insecurities and lack of knowledge or skills and redirect it to the areas where I was succeeding. I couldn’t fix everything at once, but I could lay the foundation now, and then year after year, build upon that foundation until I have created something much bigger than I could ever have imagined.

These words told me to trust myself. They told me not to wildly swing for the fences but to focus on keeping the ball in play and be confident that good things will follow.

Sadly, Rebecca passed from cancer in 2006, far too early and certainly before I was able to fully comprehend the impact she had on my life and career.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to design ABT’s Internship program, and today I can clearly see Rebecca’s influence throughout this program. Her mentorship meant the world to me, and it warms my heart to know that her legacy is still touching so many lives and careers.

As Director of Education Operations and Director of ABT’s Internship Program, Dennis Walters inspires the next generation of dancers and arts administrators. He celebrated 20 years with ABT in 2020.

Check out our new online learning platform, ABTKids Daily, dreamed up by Dennis and the Education team.

Go to ABTKids Daily
July 21, 2020
If I weren't a ballet dancer, I would be...

"All I've ever wanted to do is ballet."

By Chloe Misseldine

What would I do if I weren’t a ballet dancer? This is a tough question, but if I had to pick something other than ballet, I would go into international relations or global development. I really like to travel and experience other cultures.

Both of my parents are immigrants from different countries, so I grew up with exposure to a wide range of cultures and perspectives. I’m fortunate to have traveled to numerous countries, which has helped me to develop an appreciation for other ways of life. However, all I’ve ever wanted to do is ballet.

When I was young, most of my days were spent exploring the halls of Orlando Ballet, where my mother worked as a teacher. I still remember peeking into the studio and watching her teach class, imagining what it would be like to one day be a part of that. I started taking dance classes and eventually enrolled full-time in the Orlando Ballet School.

By the time I was 14, I had been given opportunities to perform solos and attend competitions such as Youth America Grand Prix and American Dance Competition. It was a great experience to get this type of exposure, especially at such a young age. A few years later, I competed at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne ballet competition in Switzerland. The Prix was the most high-pressure competition for which I had ever prepared. It is impossible to describe that initial feeling I experienced when the music began and all eyes were on me.

Chloe Misseldine in the <i>Pas d'Esclave</i> from <i>Le Corsaire</i> with ABT Studio Company. Photo: Jojo Mamangun.
Chloe Misseldine in the Pas d'Esclave from Le Corsaire with ABT Studio Company. Photo: Jojo Mamangun.

At the Prix, I was offered a contract with American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, and I was absolutely thrilled. My mother danced with ABT when she was younger, so as you can imagine, it had always been a dream of mine to be a part of the Company. At the age of 16, I left my family and moved to New York City. My time with ABT Studio Company was an amazing experience and was vital to both my professional and personal development.

My mother has been my biggest inspiration in life. She has taught me the importance of strength, determination and hard work. Her stories about her time as a student training in China and as a professional dancer with ABT are very motivating. She continues to push me towards becoming my best, not only as better dancer, but also as a better person every day.

Chloe Misseldine joined ABT Studio Company in 2018 and became an apprentice with the main Company in 2019.
Chloe’s mother, Yan Chen, joined ABT in 1993 and was appointed a Soloist in 1994. She retired from the stage and is now on faculty for ABT’s Summer Intensive.

Read Chloe's 2019 cover story in Dance Spirit Magazine
Florence Pettan in 1977.
Posted In
Mentors
July 7, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"Florence Pettan was a mentor to me - unwittingly perhaps, as I don't think she realized how her influence on me would take hold."

By Cristina Escoda

Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Florence Pettan.
Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner and Florence Pettan.

Of the many people who have inspired and guided me through my years in the ballet world, as dancer and then dance administrator, one person in particular was more than just a role model or an inspiration.  Florence Pettan was a mentor to me—unwittingly perhaps, as I don’t think she realized how her influence on me would take hold.  But when I look today at how I try to conduct myself at work and in life, and I look back to my early years as a fledgling artistic staff member in the office next to hers, it is evident how much I learned from Flo.

It was not so much in the practical skills department (certainly not—I was witness to her valiant efforts to move from typewriter to clunky desktop computer, floppy disks and all!).  It was in the area of professional comportment and dedicated service to the Company that I learned a thing or two from Flo.

She was of a different generation, with a Rolodex full of legendary names (movie stars, socialites, politicians) and illustrious close friends from work (the choreographer Glen Tetley, the designer Santo Loquasto, the ballerina Lupe Serrano).  And she had such a style about her— a wonderful wardrobe, Bakelite jewelry, platform heels (she was a tiny thing).  But she was neither showy nor aggressive.  As she gently told me with a smile one day early on when I was fretting over what to wear to an ABT Gala: “It’s not about us.”

Florence Pettan at work.
Florence Pettan at work.

Lucia Chase’s son Alex Ewing spoke about Flo glowingly at a memorial event for her in 2008 (she passed away in December of 2007).  In his words, she was “always on call, never complaining, ready for whatever came up next.”  She didn’t “ever raise her voice, or give way to anger, or put herself first—she was there to do Lucia’s bidding, whatever that entailed.”  All that might make her sound like a bit of a doormat, but she wasn’t.  She was simply “true blue… for Lucia, and in much the same way for American Ballet Theatre.  You didn’t dare talk against either one of them…not with Florence Pettan.”

Flo worked at ABT for at least 50 years (perhaps longer— it is unclear what year she actually began with the Company).  In the beginning, she was one of only five people in the ABT office who were support staff for the entire Company of 100+ people—dancers, ballet staff, crew, musicians, etc.  She was Lucia’s executive secretary, but as there were no separate press, marketing, development, special events or general management departments, she had a hand in every aspect of the Company’s daily business.

My work with ABT is vastly different from Flo’s back then. I also do not have an ounce of her style or fashion sense.  But with her calm, smiling, ready-to-help demeanor etched forever my brain, I try to be as tirelessly dedicated as she was and will be happy if I am able to contribute, without unnecessary fanfare, to the fabric and history of ABT even half as much as she did.

Tina Escoda was a member of ABT’s corps de ballet from 1985-1991.
She joined ABT’s Artistic Staff as Rehearsal Coordinator in 1994 and has served as Artistic Administrator since 2000.

Posted In
Mentors
June 23, 2020
Who is your mentor?

"When I think of mentors who helped me to attain my dream...several names come to mind."

By Cynthia Harvey

Cynthia Harvey and Natalia Makarova in <i>La Bayadère</i>. Photo: Kenn Duncan.
Cynthia Harvey and Natalia Makarova in La Bayadère. Photo: Kenn Duncan.

They say it takes a village; a village and at least 10 years to become a dancer. With that in mind, when I think of mentors who helped me to attain my dream of becoming a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and who simply helped me to navigate life, several names come to mind. No singular person is more important than another.

My first ballet teacher, Christine Walton, was the first person who influenced me. Mrs. Walton opened my eyes to beauty of line. She taught me about effortless grace and imbued in me the joy of dance. She continues to be one of the most open-minded people I know. I look to her now, like I did when I was a child, to respond to my inquisitive nature on the “HOW” of the dance.

The next influential person and mentor to me would have to be the legendary teacher David Howard. He came into my life at a time when I needed to learn how to really move. He dissected movement and helped me to understand that the linking steps were very important, and further, his own generosity of spirit was a lesson in love. Then, around the same time, Natalia Makarova became a mentor. She taught me the importance of dynamism. She taught me that simply making things look easy was boring and that quality and expressiveness were always something to aspire to. She gave me more than she knows.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I did not include Mikhail Baryshnikov as one of my big mentors. He taught me that purity of form was beauty in itself and verified that the work was the most important thing – always the work. He also made me understand that challenges could be attractive. I owe him, and the other people named here, a tremendous amount.

Cynthia Harvey retired from the stage in 1996 after a celebrated career as Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre and
The Royal Ballet. She was named Artistic Director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2016.