Pennsylvania Ballet demi-soloist Thays Golz as the Sugar Plum Fairy during a stage rehearsal for George Balanchine's Nutcracker. All photography by Arian Molina Soca.

We Followed Pennsylvania Ballet's Thays Golz as She Prepared for Her Sugar Plum Fairy Debut

For many professional ballet dancers, Nutcracker means weeks of performances. That usually translates to multiple casts—and important breakout opportunities for those in the junior ranks. On the afternoon of December 13, Pennsylvania Ballet demi-soloist Thays Golz made her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy along with her Cavalier, corps member Austin Eylar. For the Brazilian-born dancer, who joined PAB in 2018 after two seasons at Houston Ballet, Sugar Plum marks one of her first principal roles.

"I'm really excited," says Golz. PAB artistic director Angel Corella appointed 12 casts of Sugar Plum Fairies over the run's 29 performances. "When I first found out, I was like, 'Pinch me!' I still can't believe it."

We caught up with Golz just before her debut to see how she prepared for her big break.


Finding Her Focus

Golz preps her pointe shoes before her variation rehearsal.

Arian Molina Soca

Throughout the rehearsal process, the 21-year-old demi-soloist had to juggle seven other Nutcracker roles: Harlequin Doll, Snowflakes, lead Spanish (also new for her this year), lead Marzipan, Marzipan corps. Waltz of the Flowers demi-soloist, and Waltz of the Flowers corps. "I've had some very full rehearsal weeks!"

Golz runs through her variation at Pennsylvania Ballet's studios one week before her debut on December 13.

Arian Molina Soca

But Sugar Plum took up much of her focus—Golz started preparing for her rehearsals as early as morning class. "I think about my port de bras, how I can lengthen my muscles," she says. "Then once I get into rehearsal it feels more natural."

Golz runs through her Sugar Plum variation.

Arian Molina Soca

Although Golz admits she never connected much with Nutcracker as a student, her time at Houston Ballet changed that, especially after watching former principal Sara Webb perform the Sugar Plum Fairy. "It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," says Golz. "She was so delicate and sweet, and her technique was so clean and precise. Now I think about how she used to do it and how that can inspire my own work."

Perfecting the Style 

Artistic director Angel Corella works with Golz to perfect her arabesque during rehearsal.

Arian Molina Soca

Pennsylvania Ballet performs George Balanchine's version of Nutcracker, and while Golz rehearsed the role every day, she didn't grow up training in the choreographer's signature style. "It's not like The Sleeping Beauty, where everything is soft," she says. "It's more dynamic, so I had to make my movement more energetic in places. It took me a while to get right."

Golz gets ready backstage at Philadelphia's Academy of Music for her first stage rehearsal in costume.

Arian Molina Soca

This is especially true in Sugar Plum's solo, which comes early in Act II. "It's such a technical variation and you get so tired," she says. She also found the Balanchine trademark of spotting front, as opposed to the corner, hard to get used to, "It's very tricky but now I'm getting it, finally," says Golz, who watched videos of New York City Ballet's 1993 motion picture to help absorb the style. "And my coaches have helped me a lot."

Developing Her Partnership and Finding Her Character

Golz takes an arabesque while her partner, corps member Austin Eylar, looks on.

Arian Molina Soca

Throughout the rehearsal process, she and Eylar worked hard to create a seamless pas de deux. "In the beginning we had to figure out what works for us," she says. She notes that a long arabesque promenade at the very end of their duet is particularly challenging. "You calves are screaming, cramping," she says, laughing. "I have to stay strong in my leg, hold on to Austin and let him do the rest. If you try to do too much yourself, things start to go wrong. So I trust my partner, stay calm and the rest happens."

Golz and Eylar run through their pas de deux during a stage rehearsal last week at Philadelphia's Academy of Music. It will also be Eylar's debut as the Cavalier.

Arian Molina Soca

Golz also thought a lot about her characterization. "Sugar Plum's name says it all: She's very sweet, happy and uplifting. It really helps during full runs, when I am surrounded by the little angels. They're very cute, and I try to communicate with and dance to them. In the pas de deux it's a little harder to find her, but it's become easier as I've become more comfortable in rehearsals."

Savoring the Moment

Golz and Eylar finish up the coda with a bug smile during last week's stage rehearsal.

Arian Molina Soca

Despite weeks of intense preparation, Golz only had one performance of Sugar Plum during this Nutcracker run. "But I feel like I am on the right track, and I trust Angel to know when I'm ready to do things," she says. "I may only have one show, but I will treasure it."

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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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