Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Land of the Bittersweet: COVID's Effect on Nutcracker

To some dancers, a winter without The Nutcracker may seem like a gift. No Tchaikovsky on an endless loop. No missing real parties to dance in the party scene. No pulling fake snow out of your hair. It's the stuff that burned-out ballerinas might dream about in mid-December.

But, true to E.T.A. Hoffmann's original "Nutcracker and Mouse King," sometimes gifts are broken, and dreams are not as they seem. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies into nightmare scenarios to keep audiences and dancers safe: canceling or rethinking entire seasons, including the hallmark Nutcracker.

Financially, artistically, logistically—and let's face it, emotionally—dance companies are faced with the unthinkable. Can companies survive without The Nutcracker? We'll find out this year.

Dark Stages, Broken Budgets

In the ballet world, Nutcracker is an essential business. The ballet brings in an average of 48 percent of total performance revenue (an average of $2.8 million in ticket sales) for a year, according to a Dance/USA survey on 24 member companies' 2017–18 seasons. It's typically the most lucrative production in a season.

That revenue does more than pay salaries and electric bills. Companies rely on Nutcracker money to commission new works and experiment with productions that don't have a built-in reputation at the box office. "Nutcracker is very important to the full revenue cycle of a dance and ballet company," says Amy Fitterer, former executive director of Dance/USA.

"Nutcracker is the only production that produces any revenue—everything else loses money," says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet. In 2019, Boston Ballet's 41-show Nutcracker season brought in more than $8 million in gross revenue, according to a company representative. In lieu of a live Nutcracker, this year Boston Ballet will broadcast excerpts from past performances on NBC Boston on November 28—but the broadcast partnership won't contribute to ticket-sales revenue.

Tigran Mkrtchyn and Mia Steedle

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Every company, from those that put on glittering big-city productions to the community studio that rents a high school auditorium, will feel the financial strain. Even the iconic New York City Ballet production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker is a victim. Since its premiere in February 1954, it's been a mainstay of the company, bringing in $15.3 million last year. NYCB has already taken out millions of additional dollars from its endowment this year to make up for the revenue lost from the canceled spring season, and The Nutcracker will be an even bigger hit.

Companies without this cushion face dire financial consequences. Since the pandemic began, major companies have furloughed dancers and staff and cut salaries and expenses to stay afloat. They've established emergency-relief funds to provide immediate support and cover health-care costs for dancers. Subscribers donated tickets back to companies. And all this happened before Nutcracker came into the picture.

Many small-town studios have tried to make do with less. "It all comes down to economics," says Dan Guin, executive and co-artistic director of Boca Ballet Theatre, a pre-professional ballet company in Florida. "Even if we were able to get into a venue, would people even go to a show? Is it even cost-effective to do that?"

Crafting New Traditions

Though Balanchine's Nutcracker may be the most recognizable today, America's "first" Nutcracker was set by Willam Christensen on San Francisco Ballet in 1944. Today, Ballet West performs Christensen's version, and holds the unofficial title of "oldest Nutcracker in the country," with an unbroken 75-year run. They don't want COVID-19 to end it.

"So many companies rely on Nutcracker, but ours is part of our history," says Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West. With its legacy at stake, Ballet West has bold Nutcracker plans: adding more performances to the run so smaller audiences can maintain social distance in the theater.

Pulling this off requires "complicated casting measures," like putting dancers into "pods" that rehearse and perform together to minimize contact, Sklute says. Not to mention the finances required to pay dancers and staff for more shows.

"Ballet companies have been working to keep ourselves relevant for years," Sklute says. "Now more than ever we have to be even more creative in the way that we approach our art form."

Houston Ballet's Harper Watters and Soo Youn Cho

Lawrence Knox, Courtesy Houston Ballet

For some companies, going virtual is the safest route. Pacific Northwest Ballet's all-digital pay-per-view season includes a special video presentation of Balanchine's Nutcracker.Nutcracker. Boston Ballet's virtual season, BB@yourhome, will include divertissements set to Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite, as well as the grand pas de deux.

Julie Kent, artistic director of The Washington Ballet and former American Ballet Theatre principal, couldn't stomach the thought of canceling The Nutcracker without an alternative. "I am a dancer, first and foremost, and that would be, like, artistic suicide to me," she says. (The company will present Nutcracker and the rest of its winter 2021 season online.)

Others are seizing the opportunity to think beyond the Land of the Sweets. With its strong classical backbone and widespread appeal in pop culture, "Nutcracker is the most flexible of all ballets," says Jennifer Fisher, author of Nutcracker Nation. The ballet can handle changes, and it "has the ability to reflect culture as it develops," she says. Just look at Austin McCormick's burlesque Nutcracker Rouge and Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for proof.

As of press time, Sarma Lapenieks Rosenberg, artistic director of Anaheim Ballet, was considering choreographing a contemporary interpretation of the full-length ballet with solos and a condensed cast, which could be toured in the future. "If we can hold on to the essence and the deeper meanings to sections of Nutcracker, we can keep the spirit alive even in these circumstances," she says.

Cincinnati Ballet planned to present a shortened, hour-long Nutcracker with "all the highlights" that could be performed in a smaller venue with social distancing and no intermission, explains artistic director Victoria Morgan, who choreographed the company's Nutcracker in 2011. In November, the company decided to record a performance and present it online, rather than in-person. Amid all of the cancellations, "it's really a riot to actually be working on Nutcracker," a show that's typically put on autopilot, Morgan says. "Thinking of dancers moving on a stage right now is just one of the most pleasant thoughts."

When Houston Ballet made the decision in July to cancel The Nutcracker, artistic director Stanton Welch got to work planning "a fun Christmas Houston Ballet extravaganza" to be performed in December instead, he says. In addition to excerpts from The Nutcracker, there will also be solos and pas de deux set to classic holiday songs.

"There's a lot of great Christmas music we don't get to choreograph to because we're always doing Nutcracker," he says. "I'd love to do a small parody of Clara visiting her grandparents through the window, at a Christmas party—why not?"

Welch has experience reworking a troubled season. When Houston Ballet's home theater was flooded by Hurricane Harvey, the company quickly shifted to available venues to save its fall 2017 season. It was training for how to adapt in times of crisis, he says. "Rather than Band-Aid or mourn the cancellations, you pick up, and you make something else."

The Rite of Winter

Losing a year of Nutcracker is about more than just revenue. For audiences, "it's an entry to the art form," Nissinen says. And for dancers, it's an unparalleled oppor­tunity for stage time.

Kent says that Nutcracker is the reason she got hired at ABT as an apprentice in 1985. The company needed more dancers to support the large "Snow" and "Flowers" scenes in Mikhail Baryshnikov's version, so she took a leave from high school and joined the company on tour. "Like everyone, it's a marker of time for me," Kent says.

Kent's 11-year-old daughter, Josephine, has performed as a party guest in TWB's production the last three seasons. "It's been a wonderful experience for her as far as developing friendships, and rehearsal commitments, and performing experience," she says.

For children, the thrill of Nutcracker comes from dancing onstage alongside professional dancers. "There's not a lot of other opportunities throughout the year for that to happen," says Rachele Perla, a dancer with New Chamber Ballet, who danced in Boston Ballet's Nutcracker while in the pre-professional program.

Kristin Segin as Lead Marzipan

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

She adds that as a freelance artist, Nutcracker is a reliable source of work in an uncertain career. She still returns to her childhood studio, now The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, to perform as a guest artist in The Nutcracker.

Likewise, freelance ballet dancer Eli Raphael Gruska booked his winter "quite intensely" last year, taking gigs performing Cavalier in three different Nutcrackers over the course of four weeks for a total of 14 shows. "It was a really great exercise for me to adapt, push through, find strength, work with different partners and pick up choreography," he says. "And it really does help sustain a lot of dancers to do these Nutcracker gigs."

Eliza S. Tollet, owner of The Ballet Spot, a ballet-focused online workout studio, finds taking Nutcracker jobs is a good way to build stamina and strength as a freelance dancer. "I really like the physical demands of Nutcracker, how you're just dancing until you're dead," she says.

"More than anything, it's a dancer development tool," Nissinen, of Boston Ballet, says. "At the end of Nutcracker I have a tired company, but I have a better company."

Beyond the toy soldiers and Sugar Plums who will miss debuts, Nutcracker plays a key role in building a bridge between smaller regional companies and elite professional ones, Fisher says. "It ties together communities in a way that doesn't just sell tickets for the rest of the season, but it's sort of a goodwill gesture, and it helps ballet itself grow," she says.

A Welcome Intermission

There's a reason why hearing Nutcracker music in an elevator or a department store can be startling for a dancer—the season can be nutty.

Veteran NYCB corps member Kristen Segin, who has performed Balanchine's Nutcracker every year since she was a 12-year-old student at The Rock School for Dance Education, says, "It's kind of really exciting, because this is the first Christmas holiday season that I'll have more than just one day off."

Typically, Segin averages more than 40 public Nutcracker performances every year from the day after Thanksgiving to around New Year's Day. She usually performs Marzipan, cycling between the lead and corps roles, occasionally jumping into Snow and Flowers to cover for other dancers. It's strenuous physically and mentally to go from rehearsals for new works during the day to Nutcracker at night, she says. "But I find comfort in it because it's something very familiar."

Nissinen is hopeful that his dancers will develop a new appreciation for the ballet after having it taken away. Nutcracker is "an incredible opportunity to get better," he says. "If you have the right mentality, it's a gift."

After all, the amount of time offstage this season due to COVID-19 is similar to being sidelined for a major injury. "For dancers, losing a year is enormous in their career," says Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director of the Alberta Ballet. "It could be up to 10 percent of their career time." Dancers know they only have so many performing years. "Anything that prevents us from doing what we do is heightened because of the brevity of our career," Kent says.

"Right now, if I had to perform Marzipan every day, I would jump at that chance," Segin says. "Just to get back onstage again."

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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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