Bittersweet Fairy Tale

Back in St. Petersburg in 1892, when those four courtier-artists (director Vsevolozhsky, composer Tchaikovsky, ballet masters Petipa and Ivanov) were concocting their magical grownup-child ballet The Nutcracker, no one could have dreamed that 100-plus years later Nutcrackers would pop up every Christmas on stages all over the world. And this December, another one pops up in New York, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Clara Stahlbaum, naughty little Fritz, their parents, party guests, weird uncle Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker Prince, the mouse army—all will live again, starting December 23, in American Ballet Theatre’s lavish new production.

 

This new Nutcracker, though, won’t be another ritual of sweetness and light—not just “the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing to entertain Clara,” in the words of its choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It will be something that matches the “very enigmatic score,” as Ratmansky puts it. “This is music that makes you cry,” says the choreographer, who’s grown famous for ingeniously emotional responses to a whole range of music. And he’s right: If you listen to Tchaikovsky’s music with fresh ears, you hear those notes of anguish underneath the familiar themes. Think of the tree-growing music—it’s majestic and grand, yet deeply sad. When he wrote it, Tchaikovsky might have sensed how fragile was the cozy Tsarist life he knew. The Mariinsky prima ballerina Gabriela Komleva once refused to dance the role of Clara: She thought the story too light for the anguished music.

 

But the story itself has dark places. E.T.A. Hoffmann, its German author, was a three-time refugee in Europe’s Napoleonic wars; in response, he wrote tales of fantasy and horror. Hoffmann’s 1816 Drosselmeyer was a much scarier magician than the figure in the ballet, and his mouse king was nasty: He could turn beautiful people into ugly ones. Even when Tchaikovsky and Petipa lightened the story for the stage, they left in some scary things. Armies of mice taking over your living room at night aren’t exactly reassuring.

 

Ratmansky wants to keep those dark parts of the story in his new production; at the same time, he believes Nutcracker should be family-friendly. “And I still want it to be classical,” he adds. “Honestly, I don’t have interest in dance without pointe shoes. I don’t know of anything more—what’s the word—full of opportunities. Pointe gives another dimension to dancing.”

 

A tall order: to make a Nutcracker that’s light enough for children and dark enough for adults; pure enough to be classical, surprising enough to be new. But anyone doubting Ratmansky’s skill at resolving paradoxes has only to hear him talking. A few months ago, the 42-year-old choreographer sat backstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and quietly answered questions about his Nutcracker plans. As he talked, he grew intense; his brown, slightly-pop eyes lit up. He adores the 1954 Balanchine Nutcracker that holds sway every Christmas at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. His won’t be like that, though it’s hard for him to describe something that’s not finished. But he can explain a few things: His new snow scene won’t be the usual wintry benediction, but instead, “a bit dangerous, not sweet.” His first-act party scene won’t be “all hobbyhorses and frilly petticoats, not quite as warm as usual.”

 

And he wants to deepen the grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier that serves as the climax to the ballet’s second act. The music for that pas de deux seems to him “strangely unrelated” to the action that comes before. “It adds a lot of dramatic color to quite a light story. For me it sounds like Tchaikovsky’s painful look back on the beautiful times of childhood and growing up. Like looking from a distance.”

 

Audiences will get to see Ratmansky’s understanding of these complicated emotions, deepened by his two earlier encounters—or half encounters—with the ballet nine years ago. For the infamous revisionist, Mikhail Chemiakin-designed 2001 Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre, the one that dwells on mouse soldiers in Napoleonic retreat, Ratmansky was replaced in mid-choreography, presumably because he didn’t see eye to eye with the famous scenic artist. In that same year, he was grabbed by the Royal Danish Ballet to finish a half-choreographed Nutcracker being prepared for Tivoli Gardens (“That was the craziest month in my life,” he says).

 

Now, with many more ballets under his belt, and a stint as director of the mighty Bolshoi, ABT’s resident choreographer gets what he didn’t have before: time to work and distinguished collaborators. One of these is décor and costume designer Richard Hudson, of The Lion King fame. “He has exquisite taste,” says Ratmansky, “a feel of shape and form. I saw he could lead me somewhere I hadn’t been yet.” If preliminary sketches are right, Hudson has found that balance between traditional and fresh that Ratmansky wants. The waltz flowers have flouncy tutus of intense magenta. The Rat King wears an elegant gray waistcoat, pink baroque shoes and a hat of rat heads.

 

In the end, though, it’s the music that’s the key. “It’s so rich and deep—every new choreographer can get something out of it.” And Ratmansky didn’t even like Tchaikovsky’s music when he was young. He confesses, “I thought it was too emotional. I much preferred Stravinsky and Prokofiev.”

 

What’s changed? “I don’t judge anymore,” he says quietly. “Tchaikovsky knows how to look into the deepest cores of your soul. I don’t want this aspect to be lost behind a toy story. There are things in his music—and I hope in the dancing—that can’t be put into words. My main goal with this Nutcracker is never to forget about this side of Tchaikovsky.”

Elizabeth Kendall is a dance critic based in New York, at work on Revolution and the Muse, a book about Balanchine’s youth in Russia, and his ballerina-classmate, Lidiia Ivanova.

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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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