Diana Yohe and Joseph Parr in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Fireside Nutcracker, a new original production available on YouTube from December 17–31.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy PBT

"Nutcracker" 2020: The Creative Ways Schools and Companies Are Keeping the Holiday Tradition Alive

As COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions and mandates have forced ballet companies to alter their seasons, many have transformed the ways they bring performances to their audiences. The time-honored Nutcracker is no exception. While some companies, like Orlando Ballet, Ballet San Antonio, Oklahoma City Ballet and Alabama Ballet continue to perform the beloved ballet in theaters (albeit shortened versions adjusted for social distancing), others have had to get especially creative. From filmed virtual productions to drive-in nights to interactive tea parties, we love seeing these new nutty twists on the holiday classic! Read on to see how ballet companies and schools across the country are keeping the Nutcracker tradition alive this year.

"Nutcracker" Online

Without the ability to perform live, the vast majority of companies are engaging with audiences virtually. For example, Ballet Memphis, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Island Moving Company and Avant Chamber Ballet have redesigned their Nutcracker for the camera, creating original, made-for-film versions that viewers can watch from the comfort of their living rooms. These films showcase performances onstage or even in site-specific locations, like historic Victorian homes or outdoor parks, adding an extra-special twist to the holiday tradition.

Other companies, like Richmond Ballet, State Street Ballet, Eugene Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Texas Ballet Theatre, Ballet Met and Pennsylvania Ballet (and so many more!) have chosen to share recordings of past live performances. Some streaming options are on-demand; others are exclusive to a one-view experience but may include bonus material, like behind-the-scenes footage, family packages, extended viewing periods and virtual activities.

Countless schools and community productions are showcasing their Nutcrackers through online streaming and webcast events, too. For example, Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy is streaming a new staged production, with socially distanced choreography and digital sets to allow more space onstage. Evergreen City Ballet of Renton, Washington, is presenting Nutcracker Suites, a series of on-demand docu-dance films celebrating the ballet's story and history and featuring three different casts of students. And Magic City Nutcracker, a nonprofit organization in Alabama, has cast 88 dancers from 18 different area schools for its online Nutcracker production, filmed at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

"Nutcracker" Goes Interactive

If you've ever wanted to meet with your favorite Nutcracker characters, now could be your chance! The Sugarplum Fairy gets tech-savvy as companies offer virtual tea parties, meet-and-greets, craft activities, dance lessons and more. This season, The Washington Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet are all offering opportunities for audience members to engage with their favorite Nutcracker characters via Zoom and other platforms, in true 2020 holiday spirit. Kansas City Ballet hosted its virtual Dance-A-Story: The Nutcracker workshop for children ages 2 through 7, combining live reading, music, props, costume show-and-tells and dancing.

"Nutcracker" Outdoors and On Site

Who says The Nutcracker needs to stay inside the theater? Earlier this month, The Dallas Conservatory performed a 45-minute version of its production outdoors at Klyde Warren Park. Miami City Ballet is also taking advantage of its sunny weather with 14 performances of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker in Miami's Doral Park. Socially distanced seating and other safety protocols will be enforced.

Other companies have opted for site specific performances, dancing through flower gardens and inside large mansions reminiscent of the famous Stahlbaum abode. Ballet des Amériques has set its immersive production of The Nutcracker: Drosselmeyer's Workshop at the historical Wainwright House in Rye, New York. Audiences are limited to very small groups and are required to wear masks for safety precautions. Similarly, BalletCollective's Nutcracker at Wethersfield is staged both inside the Wethersfield Estate and around the grounds.

"Nutcracker" at the Drive-In

Some companies have taken their Nutcracker to the drive-in, where viewers can tune in on their FM radios and watch from the safety of their cars. City Ballet of San Diego, for instance, is revving up for live outdoor performances at the Del Mar Fairgrounds this weekend. Others, like Atlanta Ballet (which is also streaming its Nutcracker on-demand) and Presidio Dance Theatre, offered a traditional drive-in movie screening of a previous year's performance.

Ballet Arkansas is taking a drive-by approach with its 2020 Winter Wonderland, teaming up with the Arkansas Arts Center to transform Little Rock's Main Street into an immersive Nutcracker experience. Audiences can drive through a series of decorated outdoor scenes as company dancers perform excerpts from its annual production, bringing the stage to the streets of Little Rock.

"Nutcracker" on TV

Many of us already planned to watch the usual holiday television specials, but this year you might be able to catch your local Nutcracker on TV, too! Colorado Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theatre, Nashville Ballet, Boston Ballet, Ballet Memphis and Ballet West, have partnered with their local broadcasting stations to air their productions. Dance lovers can check their TV listings (some Nutcrackers have multiple air dates) and enjoy the show at home for free.

Of course, these are just a few examples of how the ballet community has successfully adjusted this holiday season. How is your local school or company keeping the Nutcracker magic alive this year? Let us know in the comments—we'd love to hear!

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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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