Dancers in the snow scene from Staatsballett Berlin's Nutcracker. Carlos Quezada, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin.

A Tale of Two "Nutcrackers": Staatsballett Berlin's 1892 Reconstruction Illuminates How Balanchine's Childhood "Nut" Influenced His Own

The Nutcracker has been a dancer's tradition for over 125 years. As a student at Russia's Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg in the early 1900s, a young George Balanchine performed in the original production of The Nutcracker, created in 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater. In fact, that production had a huge influence on his own version, choreographed in 1954 for the New York City Ballet—and now performed at Christmastime by companies across the nation and abroad.

In 2013, Russian choreographers Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka staged a revival of the original Mariinsky production for Staatsballett Berlin, based on the 1892 libretto by Marius Petipa, choreography by Lev Ivanov and original set and costume designs. Using a combination of Stepanov notations and early film recordings of Nikolas Sergeyev's first stagings of the ballet in the West, Medvedev and Burlaka built a version of The Nutcracker. Though not a step-by-step reconstruction, their production transmits the original's "unmistakable flair," as they explain in the program notes. Pointe took a look at both the Berlin and New York productions to see how Balanchine's childhood Nutcracker might have influenced his own. We found a lot of similarities—and a few key differences.


Lots of Children

Carlos Quezada, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

Angels in the Staatsballett Berlin Nutcracker

One thing is for sure; both productions feature tons of students: over 125 in two alternating casts from the School of American Ballet in New York, and around 60 from the State Ballet School of Berlin. "Children play the main roles in this fairy tale," Burlaka and Medvedev explain in their program notes. Students appear in both productions as party guests, soldiers, angels, polichinelles, candy canes (or bouffons, as the original production calls them) and beyond. In both party scenes, students perform rousing games and social dances—though they are a few years older in Berlin; polichinelles are similarly spritely, and angels walk with the same tiny shuffles to mimic floating in both productions. And to our delight, both versions feature an adorable bunny rabbit soldier.

Larger Than Life Sets

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

The infamous growing Christmas tree from New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian

Marvelous sets take center stage in both productions. In Balanchine's version, a Christmas tree designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian grows to massive proportions during one of the most dramatic musical moments. Andrei Voytenko's sets in Berlin (after the 1892 originals by Konstantin Ivanov and Mikhail Botscharov) create a similarly impressive effect. Both versions feature giant furniture in the battle scene—a bed in Balanchine's and an arm chair in Medvedev/Burlaka's. And though true of many productions, sets for the Lands of Sweets in both New York and Berlin overflow with enticing confections.

Snowflakes With Pom-Poms

Bettina Stöß, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

Staatsballett Berlin dancers in the snow scene wear costumes based off of the 1892 originals.

With no Snow Queen or King in either version, the corps leads the snow scene. The dancers (16 in New York and 24 in Berlin) stir up flurries with their precise pointe work, quick runs and charged energies; for the Berlin version, the Stepanov notations indicated floor patterns and snapshots of Ivanov's choreography, and Medvedev and Burlaka filled in the transitions. To top it off, dancers hold pom-poms in their hands in both versions, shaking their fists to mimic shivering in Berlin and flicking their wrists in New York in time with the music, resulting in two similarly dazzling winter wonderlands.

The Prince's Pantomime

Kai Misra-Stone, as the Prince, reenacts his battle with the Mouse King in NYCB's Nutcracker.

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

Balanchine danced the role of the Prince himself in 1919, at 15 years old. So it's no wonder that both versions include a pantomime in which the Prince tells the story of his battle against the Mouse King. Even though Balanchine's prince is a young boy, while Medvedev/Burlaka's is a principal dancer (adjusted from the original to dance the pas de deux with Clara later in the ballet), both versions use similar movements to tell the story: marching, lunging, waving an imaginary sword, and quick scurrying runs to depict the Mouse King.

Details in Divertissements

Carlos Quezada, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

The Bouffons dance from Staatsballett's Nutcracker

Act 2 divertissements share many similarities, partly due to the gorgeous costumes—designed by Tatiana Noginova after the Ivan A. Vsevolozhsjy originals in Berlin, and Karinska in New York. Dancers in the Mirliton/Marzipan dance wear yellow pointe shoes, dancing similarly sumptuous pointe work while holding small props—a pan flute in New York and baton in Berlin; The Danse orientale (Coffee) features a male soloist in Berlin, just as it did in New York originally, though now the solo is performed by a woman. And the Candy Canes hoop dance in New York, a man's solo framed by a corps of students, is remarkably similar to the show-stopping Danse des bouffons in Berlin.

The Sugar Plum Fairy's Magical Moment

Carlos Quezada, Courtesy Staatsballett Berlin

Iana Salenko and Dinu Tamazlacaru as Fée Dragée and Prince Coqueluche in Staatsballett Berlin's Nutcracker

Petipa's libretto described the ballet as a ballet-féerie—historically, a ballet that depicts a fantasy world. In the St. Petersburg original, Italian prima ballerina Antonietta Dell'Era danced the role of the Fée Dragée (aka, Sugar Plum Fairy). Medvedev and Burlaka adjusted the role by replacing both Clara and the Prince with professional dancers at the end of Act I, to allow Clara to live her fantasy by becoming the Fée Dragée and dance the Grand Pas de Deux with her prince.

While Balanchine's pas de deux choreography differs greatly from that in the Berlin production, both showcase a climactic moment where the ballerina slides across the stage on the tip of her pointe, led by her cavalier. She stands on a disk Balanchine's, and on a white gauze scarf in Medvedev/Burlaka's.

Differing Tempi

Lauren Lovette and artists of NYCB in Waltz of the Flowers

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

In many instances, tempi in Balanchine's production are much faster. In Berlin, the doll dance, primarily a pas de deux between the Puppet Prince and Princess, is almost half the speed. The Snow Scene, along with the Coffee, Tea, and Flowers divertissements are all considerably quicker in New York. This is the place where Balanchine appears to have diverged most from his roots; his version of The Nutcracker reflects the swiftness of the American pace.

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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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