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Nervous for Nutcracker Auditions? Here's How to Prepare— and How to Deal When Casting Doesn't Go Your Way

The end of summer can only mean one thing in ballet world: Nutcracker audition season. It's the time of year when everyone at your studio is on edge with excitement, nerves and dreams. It's when you rewatch your DVD of last year's performance, practice choreography in your kitchen and make a list of roles you hope to get.

Nutcracker might be your only performance opportunity of the year, or the most significant one, so stakes are high. It's understandable if you feel anxious. We spoke with American Ballet Theatre principal Stella Abrera and Joffrey Ballet dancer Lucia Connolly, who have been in your ballet shoes, as well as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet school principal Alecia Good-Boresow for their advice on approaching this year's Nutcracker auditions.


A female dancer stands onstage, balancing on one leg with her other leg raised behind her. She is wearing a white tutu and crown.

Stella Abrera in Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Prepping For Audition Day

Before the big day, take a step back and reflect on why you want to audition in the first place. "Chances are, it's because you love to dance," says Abrera, whose first role in her local Nutcracker was a Polichinelle. "With that in mind, it's okay to go ahead and acknowledge what makes you nervous about auditioning, but then consider your favorite part of ballet class or your favorite steps and focus on those as you approach audition day."

On the practical side of things, be smart about audition attire: Wear your hair in a neat bun, avoid extra layers of clothing, and always make sure your pointe shoe ribbons are secured during auditions. "The people in the front of the room will take that as a sign of being professional," says Abrera. At the same time, pay attention to more than just how it looks. "Wear a favorite leotard that makes you feel beautiful and that feels good to dance in," says Connolly, who performed Nutcracker growing up at Westside School of Ballet in California.

If your studio uses more or less the same choreography each year, Good-Boresow recommends finding time to work on the role you want beforehand. "The best piece of advice I can give is from CPYB's founder Marcia Dale Weary, and it's simply practice. Know the part you're aiming to get inside out and backwards." Doing so, she says, will allow you to relax, get into character and find freedom to perform during the audition.

A male and female dancer pose close together. The woman is risingon pointe and wearing a pink, purple, yellow knee-length tutu. The man wears a white jacket and pants and has a top hat on.

Lucia Connolly and Luis Eduardo Gonzalez in The Nutcracker.

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy The Joffrey Ballet

Handling Nerves and Performing Your Best

When the big day arrives, try to avoid comparing yourself to your classmates—easier said than done, of course. "You can be aware of others in the audition, but if you focus on them, you can psych yourself out," says Abrera. "It doesn't matter what the person next to you is doing—find your own motivation without comparison, dance for your own desire." This hearkens back to her earlier advice: to put your heart and energy into your favorite aspects of ballet class—whether that's pirouettes and grand allégro, port de bras and adagio, tackling challenging combinations, or just the feeling of moving across space. "If you focus on what gives you joy, you will bring that joy to your movement quality," she says.

Keep in mind that all of the classes you've taken and the corrections you've applied throughout your lifetime have prepared you for this day. Lean into your training, says Connolly. "Remember that your body knows how to do the steps," she says.

Sometimes, just knowing that someone else has confidence in you can keep you from feeling overwhelmed. If you know an encouraging teacher, friend or family member who can give you some words of reassurance, let them know that you're nervous about auditioning. "Sometimes, just hearing 'I believe in you' can make all the difference," says Good-Boresow.

A young girl jumps lightly off one leg during an onstage performance, wearing a bright pink and yellow costume and tights.

Connolly performs as a Polichinelle in her hometown studio's production of The Nutcracker.

Courtesy Connolly

Dealing With Casting Disappointments

What happens if your dreams of getting cast as Sugar Plum don't come true? "Step one is to process everything, to feel everything you're going to feel," says Abrera. "You don't have to sweep your emotions under the rug—after all, you've worked hard trying to get this role." The next step is to try to change your perspective. "Ask yourself what you can learn from the experience," she says. "Nothing that happened in that audition goes to waste." Finally, channel your emotions and efforts into the part you did receive. "Make the role your own," says Abrera. "Give it 110 percent. You will find fulfilment."

Remember that casting results often have nothing to do with how you performed in an audition. "It could just be that you're not the right height for the costume and the studio doesn't have the budget to make new costumes this year," says Good-Boresow.

Connolly believes that dealing with Nutcracker casting disappointments is good practice for a professional career. "If you want to be part of the ballet world, getting used to casting disappointments is part of the process," she says. She also feels it's a great opportunity to work on self-growth. "If your friends are cast in the roles that you wanted, it's essential to make an effort to be happy for them," she says. "It's worth the investment. Your relationships with your friends and colleagues are more valuable than any particular role."

As you move forward, don't forget that the experience of being in Nutcracker goes beyond dance. "It's such a wonderful tradition and a wonderful time of year," says Abrera. "Allow yourself to enjoy the time you spend with your friends and family, making bonds and making memories—you'll always have those to carry with you."

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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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