Local Color

Audiences at Nashville Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker may notice several unexpected guests at Clara’s Christmas party this year. Among those in attendance: the turn-of-the-century chancellor of Vanderbilt University and Lucille La Verne, a Nashville native best known for having been the voice of the Wicked Queen in Disney’s animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Andrew Jackson even makes a first-act cameo: When the Nutcracker battles the Mouse King, Jackson and the Tennessee Volunteer Army join him on the front lines.

Such striking alterations to the venerable holiday classic are part of Nashville Ballet’s ambitious effort to revitalize The Nutcracker—by regionalizing it. Around the country, at least six other companies have taken a similar approach. Their stakeholders contend that regionalizing The Nutcracker—the main source of annual revenue for most companies—invigorates the ballet’s traditional audience while enticing newcomers with a production steeped in the familiar.

A Civic Connection
In Charleston Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker, for example, the second act transports Clara not to the Kingdom of the Sweets, but to the Magnolia Plantation, the oldest public gardens in the country.

“From a marketing standpoint, and an artistic standpoint, you have to give your audience members some reason to keep coming back each year—not just for the tradition of going to The Nutcracker the same day that you decorate your Christmas tree, but something that will make your audience excited,” says Jill Eathorne Bahr, the company’s resident choreographer.

Of course, tweaking tradition can be a gamble. But it has paid off, according to Bahr. Twenty-one years after Charleston’s regionally themed Nutcracker debuted, it continues to inspire dancers and audiences, while boosting civic pride.

“When a company decides to produce a new Nutcracker, they’re giving something solid back to the community—not just a one-shot repertory piece, but something that represents the community. It’s a win-win situation for the balletomanes of the world and the forefathers of the city,” says Bahr.

History and Fantasy
Six years after the première of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s regionally themed Nutcracker, Terrence Orr vividly recalls the trepidation he felt following in the footsteps of George Balanchine’s beloved version.

“I was scared to death—are you kidding?” says the company’s artistic director. “But when I arrived here in 1997, they had been doing the same Nutcracker for a long time. I wanted to do something new—something that utilizes the city’s rich history. And I do feel like this is still a warm and traditional Nutcracker.”

In Orr’s production, the proscenium features a replica of the Kaufmann’s department store clock, a legendary downtown landmark and meeting place for shoppers. The backdrop of the snow scene is a view from atop Mount Washington looking down on the city’s three rivers. The setting of the second act is modeled after a well-known amusement park.

“I think it’s wonderful when I have people come three years in a row and say, ‘I saw that you added this,’” says Orr. “And I have added a lot of details. Or they will say that this version is shorter than the other one—but it’s not by any means. It’s just more interesting to them.”

It’s especially gratifying to Orr when “audience members tell me they want to come back again the next year and bring their neighbors—and not just children between the age of 4 and 8.”

Clara on the Midway
Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling hopes that reaction to his revamped version will be equally enthusiastic. The Nutcracker accounts for 65 percent of the company’s income, which puts a lot of pressure on Vasterling’s new production.        

“I danced in Nashville’s original production in 1989, so the way it was conceived kind of lives with me,” he notes. “It was important to me to maintain that heritage—a magical holiday story from a child’s point of view, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the toys, the snow scene—while overlaying it with Nashville history.”   

“It’s scary to do something fresh, and you walk a fine line when you change anything that is tradition,” he says. “I would still be worried now, had it not turned out the way it has, which is really grand, really lush and really beautiful, along the lines of the old production.”

In the early stages of planning his Nutcracker, Vasterling spent hours at the public library digging through its local archives. When he came across records and sepia-toned photos of Nashville’s Centennial Exposition of 1897, he realized that he’d hit on a time and place to ground the ballet.

Descriptions of the Vanity Fair, a midway complete with performers from around the world, read to Vasterling like the ideal setting for The Nutcracker’s second act.

Vasterling is quick to point out that the local details he’s embedded in the production are not meant to serve as a history lesson. Rather, they’re intended as touchstones for loyal Nutcracker-goers and new audiences alike.

“Those of us who are in ballet breathe it and live it, but to most people in Nashville, ballet is quite foreign,” he says. “The Nutcracker is the portal to most people’s experience with ballet, so you want to make people feel comfortable coming in and seeing it.”

A former newspaper reporter, Nicole Peradotto is a longtime arts writer who lives in upstate New York.

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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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