Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Hip Hop to Hans Christian Andersen: Seven Alternatives to the Traditional "Nutcracker"

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.



The Christmas BalletSmuin Ballet

November 17-December 24

What do you do when your city already offers several Nutcrackers?

For Smuin Ballet, the answer was to create an entirely different Yuletide production—The Christmas Ballet. Debuted in 1995, the show features a variety of original choreography in ballet, tap, jazz and other styles performed to holiday music.

"With a classical first act and a pop second act, it has become a tradition for many families," says artistic director Celia Fushille. "The program changes every year, with new songs added and old favorites returning. Smuin now performs it in four cities across the Bay Area every holiday season."


Nigel Tau and Connie Flachs rehearse "A Christmas Carol" with Brian Enos. Photo Scott Rasmussen, Courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet.

A Christmas Carol—Grand Rapids Ballet

December 22-23

Just as soon as The Nutcracker wraps up at Grand Rapids Ballet, the company will debut a new, full-length story ballet based on Charles Dickens's classic tale A Christmas Carol.

Why back-to-back holiday ballets?

"The company's Nutcracker is a large production and they are looking for something that can be toured more easily and performed on smaller stages," explains Brian Enos, the production's choreographer and artistic director of The Big Muddy Dance Company.

Enos says his choreography will feature a blend of classical and contemporary dance and touch on some of the darker humor in the story. The production's score will feature music by Tchaikovsky—mostly from his string quartets—arranged by Brendan Hollins.


Dylan Santos and Ingrid Silva in "The Brooklyn Nutcracker." Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy Brooklyn Ballet.

The Brooklyn NutcrackerBrooklyn Ballet

December 7-16

For a borough-inspired NYC Nutcracker, get a ticket to Brooklyn Ballet's The Brooklyn Nutcracker.

Artistic director Lynn Parkerson says she loves the many traditional versions of The Nutcracker but wanted to create a production that reflected the diversity of Brooklyn and the company dancers' varied training in different styles.

The Brooklyn Nutcracker, which debuted last year, blends ballet, hip hop, tap, modern and world dance with scenes that tap into the history of Brooklyn and costumes enhanced with motion-sensor LED lights.


Hip Hoppin' Rats, Rappin' Sugarplum Fairy and Philly Cheesesteak Nerd in "Philly Nutt-Crak Up." Photo by Bill Hebert, Courtesy ContempraDANCE Theatre.

Philly Nutt-Crak Up—ContempraDANCE Theatre

December 15-17

For another Nutcracker with local flavor—and a whole lot of zaniness—check out ContempraDance Theatre's Philly Nutt-Crak Up, which has been making audiences laugh for over 10 seasons.

"I created this show because there was nothing in the area other than the traditional Nutcracker," says artistic director Gail Vartanian. "I wanted to blend various genres of dance with a Philly flair and make it viewable for everyone."

The cast of characters includes the Rappin' Sugarplum Fairy, Hip Hoppin' Rats, City Hall Dolls, Captain Philadelphia, Liberty Belle-Anne and the Philly Cheesesteak Nerd.


Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy students rehearse "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Photo by Anne Metcalfe, Courtesy Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy.

'Twas the Night Before ChristmasMilwaukee Ballet School & Academy

November 19

Right before The Nutcracker gets underway at Milwaukee Ballet, the company's school will perform a new production of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.

The ballet offers students the opportunity to learn lead roles, and its one-hour runtime provides a holiday ballet option for children who might be too young to sit through The Nutcracker.

"Our students are invited to audition for the company's Nutcracker, but there are only so many roles available and they are all in the ensemble," says Rolando Yanes, director of the Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy. "In 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, students learn to create characters and dance as principals or soloists. This process mirrors company rehearsals and prepares them for experiences further down the road."


The Little Match GirlArthur Pita, Sadler's Wells

December 13-24

Arthur Pita's reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen's tale of a doomed young match seller has been lighting up stages since 2013 with its blend of dance, theater, Italian text and songs.

This somber story of injustice and human cruelty is about as different from The Nutcracker as you could find in holiday show, but the production includes gorgeous visuals, moments of humor and, ultimately, a message of hope and love—which never fails to resonate at this time of year.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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