Emma Love Suddarth and Price Suddarth perform the Nutcracker grand pas de deux at Central Indiana Dance Ensemble in 2019.

Paul Retzlaff, Courtesy Love Suddarth

What We’ll Miss Most About Our "Nutcracker" Gigs This Year

"What is that?" the TSA agent asked last year when I placed the giant circular bag onto the conveyer belt.

"It's a tutu—for ballet. You know…like The Nutcracker?" I was quick to explain.

"Oh, I see. How do you plan on fitting it in the overhead compartment?" he asked skeptically.

"Like a taco." I then proceeded to demonstrate its flexibility and explain how it folded, with a handle strap conveniently placed on either side for easy transport.

Many professional ballet dancers have been there—barely making the midnight flight, still wearing remnants of eyeliner from the evening performance and looking ahead at back-to-back performances of the Nutcracker grand pas de deux. As if Nutcracker season wasn't busy enough—especially here at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where I am a company member—countless pro dancers spend weekends in November and December hopping on and off of planes or in and out of cars, squeezing in guesting gigs with school and community productions all over the country.

Not this year, thanks to COVID-19. While we're still trying to process kitchen barres, shortened contracts and so much uncertainty about the future, the added loss of these guesting opportunities only adds salt to the wound. Recently I spoke with some of my fellow PNB dancers about why losing our Nut guestings is such a blow.

On a brightly lit stage, a ballerina in a pink tutu, tiara, pink tights and pointe shoes holds onto her partner's right hand and performs a pench\u00e9 in second arabesque on her left leg. He wears a gray jacket with a white ascot tie and gray tights and lunges deeply on his right leg while holding his left arm out to the side.

PNB principals Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths performing as guest artists in Idaho Regional Ballet's Nutcracker

Megan Holsinger, Courtesy Biasucci

For some of us, these gigs are a chance to come full circle by returning to the studios where we grew up. Last year my husband (PNB soloist Price Suddarth) and I returned to his home company, Central Indiana Dance Ensemble in Westfield, Indiana. It was his teacher's 20th anniversary, so it was a special opportunity to return for the celebration.

My colleague, PNB soloist Joshua Grant, enjoys building relationships with schools. "[I] go repeatedly to the same places over and over again," he says. For the last few years, he has performed for Studio West Dance Academy in Olympia, Washington, a studio he frequently teaches and choreographs for. "You see the students watching you and mimicking you. They say we are inspiring them, but they inspire me to work hard and do my best. I bring that fresh energy back to Seattle with me every time."

Guestings can also be quite financially lucrative, and many of us have come to depend on that extra boost at an expensive time of year. Now, with salaries being frozen and work weeks being cut in companies all around the country, losing that paycheck feels like a sucker punch to the gut. Without Nutcracker, it's a completely different holiday season from all angles.

A ballerina in a sparkly white tutu, pink tights and pointe shoes performs a pench\u00e9 arabesque on her left leg and presses her arms back. Her partner, wearing a matching jacket and tights, stands behind her and holds onto both of her wrists while three children in colorful costumes watch behind them onstage.

The author and her husband, Price Suddarth, went back to Suddarth's hometown to perform in Central Indiana Dance Ensemble's Nutcracker in 2019.

Paul Retzlaff, Courtesy Love Suddarth

That said, guestings can be a bit of a double-edged sword. PNB principal Leta Biasucci explains that while she really loves the gigs she's been able to do, "I'm a creature of habit and the slippery floors, condensed performances, travel and unfamiliar venues can be sources of stress for me."

They can also be rough on the body. During PNB's Nutcracker run, each dancer is bouncing anywhere between three and 10 roles during a performance weekend, from Party Parent to Sugarplum Fairy. There are easy shows, and there are hard ones. But when you're guesting, you're usually doing back-to-back performances of the grand pas—and possibly a little more. That's after doing a full performance load at home, and sometimes taking a cross-country overnight flight (resulting in epically swollen ankles and feet). And, of course, there's always the dreaded freezing theater and slippery, cement-like stage. Trying to recover between the matinee and evening show on day three feels impossible.

PNB soloist Joshua Grant rehearses a dancer for a guest performance.

Courtesy Grant

Yet my friends and I all agree that the positives greatly outnumber the negatives. For one, it's one more opportunity to perform. Principal Dylan Wald has guested with Lafayette Ballet Theatre for the past couple years alongside different PNB ballerinas. He laments the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has robbed dancers of that onstage rush: "The time we have as professionals is so limited, any time away feels like a loss." And dancing multiple shows in a row of one role allows for onstage experimentation, something you might not do when you share your part with 10 other casts. "I feel like I am visiting an old friend," Biasucci says of her Sugarplum gigs. "It allows me to take risks, try new ideas and see others do the same."

Gigs are also a chance for "the performance that would never happen" at our home companies. Price and I are virtually the same height, meaning we'd almost never be paired together in a classical pas de deux. Not only did our Nutcracker gig last year give us the opportunity to do the grand pas together, but I was 20 weeks pregnant at the time—not exactly a routine Frau Stahlbaum/Arabian performance for me!

A male and female dancer stands next to each other closely and pose for a selfie in a green-carpeted dressing room. She wears a gold tiara and an off-white tutu with fancy gold trim; he wears a matching jacket with white tights and slippers.

PNB principals Dylan Wald and Laura Tisserand take a photo backstage at Lafayette Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker.

Courtesy Wald

Above all, the thing we all agree we'll miss most about our guestings this year are the young eyes brightly lit in the wings. "Cheering on friends and fellow dancers (and the cutest little Polichinelles) backstage sparks holiday joy for me," says Biasucci. As a 6-year-old girl in Kansas, I remember watching Wendy Whelan and Lauren Anderson from the wings, they in their glistening tutus and me in my ginger cookie #10 costume. We all had those dancers who inspired us—it's such a special gift to return the favor to the next generation.

While it might be nice to finally take part in the family holiday traditions we've always missed, it's hard to imagine our year without Nutcracker. Even if hearing "Waltz of the Flowers" blaring over the speakers at Target makes us cringe every year, Grant sums up what most of us are feeling: "Being without it for a year will make us appreciate Nutcracker and those gigs in 2021." It's a friend we'll see again.

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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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