The cast of Troy Schumacher's The Nutcracker at Wethersfield

Charlotte Rare, Courtesy BalletCollective

BalletCollective’s "Nutcracker at Wethersfield" Takes the Holiday Classic On Site, Starring NYCB Dancers

It was not Troy Schumacher's dream to create a Nutcracker. And yet there he was, a few weeks ago, standing in the middle of a large gymnasium in Dutchess County, New York, directing a group of dancers as they flew through the air to the "Waltz of the Flowers." Schumacher, a New York City Ballet soloist who directs his own small ensemble called BalletCollective, is the choreographer and director of the new Nutcracker at Wethersfield, a production being performed live, for very small numbers of people, at the Wethersfield Estate December 4 to 23.

His Nutcracker is a response to a deep need, in this year in which most live performances have been canceled and dancers have had few opportunities to work. As he said, "I think that right now, a lot of us are craving some sort of return to the familiar, craving even just a little morsel of tradition." It's a feeling we can all relate to.

A white ballerina wearing a white and gold tutu, pink tights and pointe shoes poses in a low arabesque on the front stoop of a large brick estate covered in ivy. She holds a nutcracker doll in her left hand and rests her right hand on a large pillar for balance.

New York City Ballet soloist Ashley Laracey poses outside the Wethersfield Estate in Amenia, NY.

Courtesy BalletCollective

The moment, back in September, when Schumacher stepped on the Wethersfield property—a stately house surrounded by formal gardens and woodlands two hours north of Manhattan—the idea of creating a Nutcracker there began forming in his mind. "Something immediately felt magical," he says, "and I asked myself, 'Is this the set of The Nutcracker?'" The house, with its formal parlors and fireplaces, is a good stand-in for the ballet's original setting, a bourgeois household in Nuremberg. There is even the odd mouse, as NYCB principal dancer Jared Angle, who has been deputized as company manager for the production, told me. (He has the problem under control.)

The small number of guests at each performance (seven to eight socially distanced groups of two to six people) are led from room to room to experience the early scenes of the ballet. Then, they are ushered out into the gardens, through topiary passageways and pavilions to a large tent that contains the dreamlike Kingdom of the Sweets. For this scene, Schumacher has conceived the dances to be experienced in the round, so that each family is surrounded by the action, while keeping a safe distance. (The fantasy décor is by designer Elizabeth Mayhew.)

A group of female dancers wearing practice clothes rehearse in a school gym. Eight of them stand in tendu derriere and bend their bodies forward, encircling another dancer posed on her right knee on the floor. A man and woman sit in chairs in front of them, watching from a distance.

Troy Schumacher and Ashley Laracey rehearse the dancers at a nearby school gym. The cast of The Nutcracker at Wethersfield has been living on site for over a month.

Courtesy BalletCollective

The choreography, for 22 of Schumacher's NYCB colleagues and former ABT dancer Julio Bragado-Young, is intentionally expansive. "It has felt so nice to be able to really move in space," says corps member Ralph Ippolito, who is interpreting several roles, including the Toy Soldier in the party scene. "And Troy is so musical, he has been able to find new accents and nuances in the score."

In other words, it feels like a real Nutcracker, with multiple Flowers, and Snowflakes, and some divertissements, like the Spanish Dance and Marzipan (but no Tea or Coffee). There are two alternating casts of Sugarplum Fairies and Cavaliers: Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley in one, and Ashley Laracey (Schumacher's real-life partner) and Tyler Angle in the other. Much of the Sugarplum choreography was developed in Schumacher and Laracey's living room; Laracey also assists in rehearsals and teaches morning class.

Christopher Duggan, Courtesy BalletCollective

Cainan Weber and Ralph Ippolito, as the Nutcracker and Mouse King, respectively, battle it out on the estate grounds.

Assuring everyone's safety has been paramount, and has included extensive quarantining for the dancers, as well as COVID-19 testing before and during the rehearsal period and housing the cast on-site for the entire five-week period. ("It's a little bit like living in 'Downton Abbey,'" jokes Schumacher.) Rehearsals are held in a nearby school gym, used only by them. Meals are brought in—no one leaves the pod. The attendees will be masked and carefully stage-managed. "The pathway that each family takes does not cross paths with another family throughout the entire process of walking around the grounds," Schumacher assures.

All of this has required meticulous planning and protocols, overseen by medical professionals, including Dr. Lipi Roy, an NBC News medical contributor. The final price tag of around $400,000 has been underwritten by private donors, whose gifts of $5,000 or more offers them an invitation to see the production. About 40 percent of spots have been donated to local nonprofits, including Grace Immigrant Outreach and Food of Life/Comida de Vida Food Pantry, so that families who have been particularly impacted by the pandemic can attend. And access for essential workers in the Rhinebeck community will be underwritten by a local dairy. A free streamed version will be available December 23 to 26; go to the event website to access the link.

Rachel Klein, Courtesy Ballet Collective

The full company of The Nutcracker at Wethersfield performs the finale.

Beyond the final product, which will be viewed live by a lucky few, the production has provided work and a sense of purpose for 23 dancers, normally so busy during Nutcracker season. "It's just so nice to be back in the studio," says Angle, "around people doing the physical work of ballet."

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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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