Who Is Sugar Plum?

Snagging Sugar Plum is a coup for any dancer: Portraying this vision of beauty and benevolence is a dream lots of little—and not so little—girls cherish. Yet while the role might look like a breeze, it requires expert technique as well as stamina. And more: To bring her to life and keep her sparkle intact for countless performances, dancers must ask themselves, who is the Sugar Plum Fairy?

With more than 500 Nutcrackers performed across the country each year—and who knows how many renditions of Sugar Plum—how do you start to define the character? “Sugar Plum is the epitome of beauty, love, tenderness, sweetness and all good things,” says Bene Arnold, interim chair of the ballet department at The University of Utah. Start with that foundation, then make it your own. “Each dancer has to give the character her own sense of beauty and graciousness. That’s part of the creativity.”

To get comfortable enough to portray a fairy, National Ballet of Canada’s Bridgett Zehr had to first address the technical challenges. While Zehr thinks the more contemporary James Kudelka choreography NBC performs is easier than the traditional version, Sugar Plum has a pas de deux Zehr describes as nonstop. “You need to be calm,” she says. “Be right on your leg or you throw yourself off.”

Like many dancers, Zehr looks to Gelsey Kirkland’s performance of the variation as the supreme interpretation. “It’s like she never touches the ground,” Zehr says of American Ballet Theatre’s celebrated Baryshnikov production, long a holiday staple on TV. To achieve that quality, Zehr uses imagery. “I have a coach who said Sugar Plum enters walking on a cloud, so light, so fresh. I work on being as light as air.” But technique isn’t everything, cautions Zehr, who began dancing Sugar Plum in 2006. “Remember that she’s still a character,” she advises. “A lot of times, people get distracted by this classical pas de deux and forget she plays a part in the story.” 

Integral to that part is Sugar Plum’s relationship with Clara. “It’s important to connect with Clara,” says Angela Whitehill, co-author of The Nutcracker Backstage and founding artistic director of Burklyn Ballet Theatre. “I remember one dancer I had, and the love she had for Clara. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Which makes perfect sense to BalletMet dancer Emily Gotschall, who first danced the role last year. “Sugar Plum is not an untouchable mystical fairy,” says Gotschall. “She’s Clara’s idealization of her mother.” To project Sugar Plum’s most important quality—warmth—Gotschall goes for gracious port de bras and eyes that are “open and bright.” No fake stage smiles for this dancer. “I try to dance her as real,” she says. “The Sugar Plums who move me the most are not necessarily the most technically proficient, though you have to have that, but someone who’s authentic. You can tell when someone’s enjoying that role.”

While Ballet West Principal Christiana Bennett sees Sugar Plum as more ethe­real than human, she also focuses on interacting with Clara. “Sugar Plum is a warm-hearted creature,” says Bennett. “She’s so grateful that Clara has saved the Prince that she creates the whole second act for her. She’s almost like a Fairy Godmother.” There are those all-too-human moments, of course, when it can be hard to stay in character: Seats start to squeak and she hears, “Mommy, it’s Barbie!” Bennett says, “I try to block it out and be ever more gentle and soft.”

While there is no Sugar Plum in Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, Christine Winkler dances her variation as Dew Drop Fairy. For her, the glorious music alone is enough to maintain the magic—even though she’s heard it a million times. “All dancers roll their eyes when they hear Nutcracker music at the mall,” she says. “It’s about show 28, you’re trying to do Christmas shopping, and you have to run out of the store.” Nonetheless, Winkler is able to inject her role with newness each year because Artistic Director John McFall lets the dancers tweak the production. “We get to take liberties,” Winkler says. “John knows it can get tedious.” McFall allows principals and soloists to tailor his steps—turning on a different leg, for instance—and play with the interpretation. “He gets the best possible outcome because you’re more comfortable,” Winkler says. An added benefit? “You feel more part of the process. You take part ownership.”

Many dancers are motivated by the thought that their performance might inspire future dancers. Nutcracker brings ballet to the public, and savvy Sugar Plums get that. “You can obsess over technique, but at the end of the night, the most important thing is to connect with the audience,” says Gotschall. Zehr adds, “So many people see Nutcracker and want to dance. I have to remember that somebody might discover ballet at Nutcracker.”

Susan Chitwood is a frequent contributor to Pointe.

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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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