Daniel Ulbricht in Jerome Robbins' Suite of Dances at New York City Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB.

"It's Just the Right Time": Daniel Ulbricht on Finally Dancing NYCB's Nutcracker Cavalier

We tend to think that by the time you've made it to principal at a major company, you've performed all of Nutcracker's leading roles. But for New York City Ballet star Daniel Ulbricht, this Nutcracker season proves extra special. On December 21, Ulbricht, who joined the company in 2000, will dance as the Cavalier on the NYCB stage for the first time with Erica Pereira as his Sugarplum Fairy.

The princely Cavalier role will be a departure from the bravura roles he typically dances (and excels at). We touched base with Ulbricht to hear about how he's making the role his own, and how creating opportunities to dance Balanchine's Cavalier outside of NYCB has prepared him for this debut.


Was this casting decision a long time coming?

This is a part that obviously every kid sees when they're young and aspires to dance. I have been fortunate; not having danced the role at NYCB doesn't mean I haven't done it elsewhere. For the past 15 years I've had the opportunity to dance it at schools and other guestings. The experience that I've gained there is helpful now that the opportunity has come up with the company. That's one factor. The other factor is finding the right person to dance it with. Finding these partnerships is very special. I think it was just the right time.

Ulbricht in the Candy Cane variation. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

When you've done the role elsewhere, have you always danced Balanchine's version?

Yes. There are wonderful versions out there, but there's something so perfect about Balanchine's. When you have that pinnacle of such amazing musicality and class and choreography, it culminates in genius.

I've really had the chance to build my confidence in the role. At NYCB a principal dancer will perform it maybe three to five times in the Nutcracker run despite it being six weeks long. But when dancing it outside the company I've done it three to five times in a weekend.

You're known for dancing the Candy Cane variation in Nutcracker. What's it been like to perform the same role for so many years?

This year is probably the 19th year I've done Candy Cane with the company. When I hit 10 years, I wanted to figure out a way to keep it fresh and take pride in the role. I know that the music's not going to change and I know that the choreography isn't going to change, but the audience changes. I came up with the rationale that there's always someone in the audience who has never seen it before, and it's my job as an interpreter of this ballet to show them what it can look like. That was a big 180 for me.

Ulbricht showing off his straddle jump in Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Does it feel different to rehearse the Cavalier?

A lot of my repertoire has been sort of the inverse of classical ballet technique; sometimes it falls into being more abstract or athletic or acrobatic. Candy Cane couldn't be more different from the way we warm up in ballet class each day. You're jumping through a hoop, twisting your legs, turning in, and morphing your body. So in a weird way, doing Cavalier seems really straightforward because it's a continuation of the classical style and the way we train. I can't tell you the last time I did a straddle jump in class.

Do you have any advice for dancers who might feel like it's taking them a long time to get leading roles?

A very close teacher of mine once said to me, "When it's the right time, it's the least amount of work." In all the years I've worked at NYCB, I've never asked for a role, and I've always trusted leadership to let me know when it was the right time for me to try something. I had to really trust in myself, and I was very fortunate that I could create opportunities outside of the company. There's so much value in getting whatever experience you can.

I'd encourage every dancer to find a role that they'd like to learn and grow in and see if they can have the opportunity to have someone coach them in it. More importantly, if it looks like casting is going to be a little slow, see if they can find an outlet to perform it. It may be on the road, and not on their main stage right away, but that's how you'll gain confidence.

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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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