UNSCA's film department gets ready to shoot the Battle Scene for the school's new film of The Nutcracker.

Peter J. Mueller, Courtesy UNCSA

UNCSA Students Create a Collaborative "Nutcracker" Movie for the Pandemic Era

Earlier this year, anticipating the ongoing repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, University of North Carolina School of the Arts' interim dean of dance, Jared Redick, started looking ahead to their annual Nutcracker performances. In May, he and the deans of UNCSA's Film, Music, and Design and Production schools started brainstorming on how to maintain some semblance of the holiday tradition safely, while also being instructive for their students and beneficial to the community. They saw a golden opportunity to collaborate on a filmed version of the ballet. With less than three months to plan, a curtailed rehearsal period (UNCSA's semester ended before Thanksgiving) and limited studio capacity, the logistics were daunting. But Redick was still determined to create something special. "We wanted to keep it traditional, but we have all these cool resources at our fingertips," he says. "How could we reimagine the production?"

The result is a roughly 30-minute cinematic Nutcracker film with 63 dancers and a full orchestra. Special effects create illusions of real combat in the battle scene and closely swirling snowflakes in the snow scene. UNCSA's wardrobe department enhanced existing costumes with special details for the benefit of close-up shots and created dance-friendly coordinating face coverings for every performer. The film premieres in a livestreamed online scholarship fundraiser on December 12, and will be available for free on demand beginning December 17 on UNCSA's website and social media channels. It will also be broadcast on UNC-TV beginning December 22.

A teenage ballerina holds a sparkly pink wand and does a piqu\u00e9 first arabesque on her right leg. Costued as the Sugarplum Fairy, she wears a pink tutu with floral and lace details on the skirt and bodice, a sparkly tiara, and pink tights and pointe shoes.

Eleanor Broughton, a junior in UNCSA's high school program, performs as the Sugarplum Fairy.

Peter J. Mueller, Courtesy UNCSA

Rising to the Challenge

While the film is significantly shorter than the typical two-hour ballet, pulling together new choreography and an abridged orchestral score in time for the nine-day filming process was logistically challenging. Redick tapped faculty member Ilya Kozadayev to choreograph the new version. "My first reaction was excitement—I've never choreographed a Nutcracker before— and immediately the wheels started turning," says Kozadayev. "How could we do this with all the limitations of social distancing, not being able to partner and the corps having to be very spaced out?"

Kozadayev first wrote a screenplay outlining each scene, including a narrated prologue to replace the party scene. The battle and snow scenes remain, but the Act II divertissements are truncated, and Mother Ginger, the grand pas de deux and the finale are eliminated. "It became a sort of game for me of how to make sure we have a true beginning, culmination and ending for each segment, both choreographically and musically," Kozadayev says. "It had to feel organic."

Peter J. Mueller, Courtesy UNCSA

Anthony Santos, a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem and a UNCSA alum, came back to portray Drosselmeyer for the film.

Kozadayev edited the score at home on his computer before sending it off to UNCSA's guest conductor, Karin Hendrickson, who created the orchestral arrangement. The UNCSA music students recorded the score section by section (to keep the musicians in small groups), which was then digitally edited into a layered orchestral sound.

New hurdles appeared when it came time for the dancers to rehearse. For safety, most studios had a maximum capacity of 12 dancers. Since regular classes also had to be divided into small groups and spaced throughout the day, studio space was at a premium. "It became like a game of chess," Kozadayev says of pulling together the 12-dancer snow scene. "I had to learn everybody's schedules and try to arrange it so I'd have at least six dancers there, but often I'd only have three or four. When I needed 12, I might get eight or nine. And then I needed to make sure I saw the ones who weren't there at another time that week, so I could teach them their choreography."

This patchwork method meant that each dancer had fewer hours of preparation than usual. "If you were a Flower, you probably rehearsed an hour and a half a week," Kozadayev says. "Normally before production week we'd do run-throughs every day. But none of that happened."

An Unexpected Curriculum

UNCSA's quick pivot from stage to screen gave students an unexpected benefit: a crash course in life as a 21st-century professional dancer—and not just because film and digital media will be an ongoing part of how dance is presented in the future, says Redick. The condensed rehearsal process made it imperative to learn fast, but to also be ready to make quick adjustments, particularly once on the film set. (Filming took place on a soundstage instead of in a theater, and to achieve optimal camera angles the choreography was frequently performed facing multiple directions, or even altered on the spot to fit the space.)

Eleanor Broughton, a junior in UNCSA's high school ballet program who performs Sugarplum in the film, says she had to make time to work on things by herself, like tricky turns and character development, because rehearsal hours were so short. "It was hard—I only rehearsed about twice a week—but I feel this has helped me prepare for professional life. It's another tool that the school has given us, because film is definitely going to be in our future."

Courtesy UNCSA

An overhead shot of the Snow scene

Redick wholeheartedly agrees, noting that dancers' ability to take corrections quickly and withstand multiple repetitions of choreography uniquely readies them for film work. "We're having a paradigm shift in how we present our art form," he says. "Dance on film is going to be a main avenue for us to feature dance. So it was really beneficial for our dancers to learn about being on a set, blocking, being in frame, shooting and reshooting."

While the energetic connection with a live audience was missing, Broughton found a similar thrill by being in front of the cameras, performing for the crew and everyone on set. But what was most inspiring was the spirit of collaboration among musicians, filmmakers, designers and dancers. "The coolest thing was watching everyone do their job and us all working together."

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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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