Carolina Ballet soloist Sam Ainley, shown here as a teenager, was initially not jazzed about dancing as a Big Mouse in his childhood Nutcracker. But he learned to appreciate the role. Photo Courtesy Ainley.

What 4 Pros Learned Dancing "Nutcracker" Roles They Weren't Excited About As Kids

You have your heart set on a role. Casting goes up. You're crushed. Not only were you passed over for the part you were hoping for, but you're definitely not excited about the role you received.

You're in good company—nearly every dancer has gone through this. We spoke with four professionals about their less-than-desired Nutcracker roles growing up, and asked them to reflect on what they learned from the experience.


Katherine Lawrence, Ballet West principal dancer

Katherine Lawrence, in a green and pink tutu, and Chase O'Connell, in white tights and a green tunic, balance on their right leg with their left leg lifted behind them in attitude.

Katherine Lawrence and Chase O'Connell in Ballet West's Nutcracker.

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

When I was 8, I began performing in the party scene with Connecticut Ballet. This was exciting, because party scene roles were usually for older kids. Because of this opportunity and others I received over the next few years, I believed I was on the trajectory to be Clara.

Then, when I was 12, one of my good friends was cast as Clara and I was cast as a Soldier. I was pretty devastated. My mom was in the hospital at the time the casting went up, but afterwards she took me on a trip to the beach and had a long talk with me about how all roles in Nutcracker were important. This helped me a lot. During rehearsals, I began to learn how to perform in a unit and experienced the camaraderie of the corps de ballet. By the time we came to the performances, I was really enjoying the role: the sense of moving together with other dancers, staying in line together and staying strong together. Now, when I watch classics such as Giselle and La Bayadère I feel that the strength of the corps is what really reflects on the quality of the company.

Sam Ainley, Carolina Ballet soloist

Sam Ainely, in a pink tunic and white tights, partners a ballerina in a purple tutu on pointe.

Sam Ainley partners Alyssa Pilger in Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker.

Jason Pescasio, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

When I was 13, I was cast as a Big Mouse in Sacramento Ballet's Nutcracker. I was extremely disappointed, because I was hoping to be a Party Child again, like all my friends. All of a sudden, I was in rehearsals with only a few older, upper-level boys who I'd never talked to before. Some of the other mice were danced by apprentices from the company.

Sam Ainley, in a mouse headpiece, white sleeveless T-shirt, black shorts and black ballet shoes, listens to rehearsal notes in a cluttered dance studio.

A teenage Ainley rehearses his role of a Big Mouse for Sacramento Ballet's Nutcracker.

Courtesy Ainley.

I was very nervous at my first rehearsal; I was quiet and stayed in the back of the studio. The role consisted of many different types of jumps, most of which I had never attempted. The older boys taught me some of the more advanced choreography before the director came to the studio for rehearsal. It was at this point that I realized how much I enjoyed jumping. With the help of the director telling me "Up!", the height and technique of my jumps began to improve. After my third rehearsal, I thought, This is working! The coordination of jumping felt extremely natural, and I began to integrate these lessons into my daily technique classes. If I hadn't received a role I didn't want, I may not have discovered my love of jumping so early in my training.

Elizabeth Powell, San Francisco Ballet soloist

Elizabeth stands onstage with her feet together in sus-sous on pointe. She wears a white tutu and crown, and there is fake snow falling around her.

Elizabeth Powell in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

For my very first Nutcracker at Boston Ballet as a student, I really wanted to be cast as a Toy Doll. In the production at that time, each of the dolls represented one of the dancers from the Act II divertissements. You could not only feel like you were representing a ballerina, but you also got to be carried by the big mice in the battle, so there was interaction with company members. I really hoped to be the doll representing Flowers or Arabian. Instead I was cast as the Baby Mouse.

Elizabeth Powell, as a child, poses in a fluffy black mouse costume and headpiece. She wears makeup of a mouse nose and whiskers on her face.

Powell as the Baby Mouse from Nutcracker.

Courtesy Powell.

But in this role, I found some of the things I was looking forward to in the Toy Doll part. The Baby Mouse also got to be in the battle scene and be carried around by big mice. What was even more exciting was that there was only one Baby Mouse, so it was like its own little solo part. Moreover, I was just thrilled and grateful to be in Boston Ballet's Nutcracker. It's a big production and lots of kids who tried out weren't selected. I had auditioned the year before and wasn't cast, so it was a lesson in gratitude. I ended up loving the part.

Chandler Proctor, Tulsa Ballet demi-soloist

Chandler Proctor, in a black tuxedo costume, splits his legs into sissonne during the Nutcracker's party scene. He is surrounded by other dancers in black dresses and tuxedos.

Chandler Proctor (jumping) in Tulsa Ballet's Nutcracker.

Andrew Weeks, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

When I was 14 at the International Ballet Academy in North Carolina, I wanted to perform in the Russian dance in Nutcracker—I liked roles with jumps and turns. Instead, I was cast in the Snow Scene pas de deux. I wasn't really interested in partnering at the time and didn't think this role would be exciting. I also didn't have much pas de deux experience and felt like the casting was a mistake. I struggled in rehearsals and couldn't do any of the lifts.

A young Charles Proctor, wearing a white jacket and tights, stands behind a teenage student ballerina in a white tutu and holds her waist so she can balance on pointe.

Fourteen-year-old Proctor partners his classmate in the Snow Scene from the International Ballet Academy's Nutcracker.

Courtesy Proctor

I went home one day and expressed my frustration to my dad. He suggested we start working out together and lifting weights to help build my upper-body strength. He bought some weights and we worked out every day and I got stronger. I started to get better at lifting my partner. I remember the feeling of accomplishment on the day I finally was able to do the arabesque press lift. My coach also helped me not to be shy about partnering and taught me that, together, my partner and I should dance as one person. As a male dancer, partnering is a very important skill and this role helped me learn that.

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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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