The pressure was on. India Bradley, making her debut as Dewdrop in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” exited the stage after her first entrance and knew that something had to shift. The spotlight was brighter than she had imagined. She couldn’t see a thing.
“I was like, get it together,” Bradley, 25, said in an interview at Lincoln Center. “Open your eyes. Open your shoulders. And don’t do weird stuff. I swear it was Mr. Mitchell. It felt like Mr. Mitchell was screaming at me.”
Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal of New York City Ballet who went on to be a founder of Dance Theater of Harlem, was in her head — and that was a good thing. Bradley was a first, too: the first Black Dewdrop, and she had four more entrances to go. Dewdrop, who leads the Waltz of the Flowers, has five entrances altogether — short bursts of ravishing, effervescent dancing, with turns and jumps that appear and disappear as quickly as a dew falling from a petal.
Bradley, a member of City Ballet’s corps de ballet, got it together for her debut on Dec. 10. “I was like, you cannot go back out here and be a wreck,” she said. “This is a very important performance, unfortunately.” That is, she clarified, “I wish it weren’t such a big deal. It’s a blessing that this is happening, and this is going to feel so good for the girls who do it after me with 50 percent less pressure. But for me, this feels like a lot.”
She got control of her nerves and was triumphant. (She is scheduled to reprise the role on Saturday and Tuesday.) But Bradley wasn’t the only Black dancer to get a shot at Dewdrop. As part of City Ballet’s 75th anniversary season, Alexandra Hutchinson, a member of Dance Theater of Harlem, performed the role twice as a guest artist last week.
While Bradley was coached by the repertory director Christine Redpath, Hutchinson, 28, learned the role from Kyra Nichols, a former City Ballet principal who staged the Balanchine ballet “Pas de Dix” at Dance Theater this summer.
“I feel like she’s the golden standard,” Hutchinson said of Nichols.
Wendy Whelan, City Ballet’s associate artistic director, had been talking about guests with Jonathan Stafford, the company’s artistic director, and she had a vision: To honor Mitchell and the tie between the companies, they needed to have a woman from Dance Theater lead “The Nutcracker” in this anniversary year. Whelan said, “He was like, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it!’”
Robert Garland, Dance Theater’s artistic director, who chose Hutchinson said, “The thing Mr. Mitchell said was, ‘Robert, there’s a moment when words will not work anymore,’” he said. “‘You have to see it.’”
Hopefully, another first, a Black Sugarplum Fairy, will follow in the not so distant future. For now, these fresh Dewdrops — filling the theater with cheering crowds — gave “The Nutcracker” a jolt of energy and, most important, sparkling dancing: Bradley was like a sleek sprite cutting through a field of flowers; Hutchinson was all warmth and verve.
“There is studying,” Hutchinson said, “and there’s paying homage and knowing your history and knowing who’s done it before you and wanting to do the Balanchine technique correctly and all that. But then there’s also, What am I bringing to it?”
Both are excited to have expanded the idea of what a Dewdrop can be. “Like the Dewdrop should be pink,” Bradley said. “Really? A Dewdrop is a drop of dew. So can’t anyone do it?”
Earlier this week, they met to speak of their shared, history-making experience. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the mental challenge of being the first Black dancer to dance Dewdrop at City Ballet — but also being in such a featured role?
INDIA BRADLEY My mind never stopped racing. It was racing so much that I had to stick to thinking about only a handful of things. One thought that I forced myself to push forward was “dance well.” People kept saying, “Just have fun.” I stopped saying that to myself because there was so much of a different pressure than the other girls that debut Dewdrop at New York City Ballet. There’s so much weight to carry.
ALEXANDRA HUTCHINSON I try to treat every time like I’ve been here before. Yes, it’s a bigger stage and a broader opportunity. I was just thinking about every moment, one step at a time. I’m not going to think about the next entrance. And then when I get there, I’ll deal with it. It’s so much to carry.
I love what you said about the “fun” part …
BRADLEY Just have fun! And hearing it from a white girl, it was just like — it wasn’t their fault at all. They are trying to tell you what is best for them to hear. It’s your friends. It comes from love. And so I just accepted it, and I would go, Mmm hmm. But I was like, this isn’t fun. It was fun when I did it, when I checked off all the boxes. But I wouldn’t use the word fun for all this pressure.
HUTCHINSON Exactly. I think that savoring every moment helped me one step at a time. Like feeling my fingertips. Shoulders back and keep that perfume, leave a scent behind you.
Did you hear Mr. Michell’s voice, too?
Hutchinson Yeah. Just imagine the pressure he had.
What did Kyra Nichols emphasize to you?
HUTCHINSON The tempo that she danced it at was insane. It was so fast. When I watched the video, the port de bras — the way that she moved her arms — was something that stuck with me. And the precision of her legs. Those contrasting energies pushed me.
And, India, how was it working with Christine Redpath?
BRADLEY Christine has the most peaceful long-gray-haired wise energy to her. At our first few rehearsals, she was like: “You are already capable of all these steps. The technique is there, the steps you can do.” She kept calling it a process and was like, “Throughout this process, we’re never, ever going to freak out, talk down to ourselves, doubt ourselves — any of the unnecessary things.”
BRADLEY She was like, we’re just stripping away things that you no longer need and adding things that could make you look like a wiser dancer.
Alexandra, what advice did you get?
HUTCHINSON One of my friends actually told me to picture myself in the wings — what would that feel like, what would the lights feel like? And to see that in the studio. I swear that was one of the best things that helped me
What did it feel like after your performances?
HUTCHINSON I cried when I came offstage after the second one. It was freeing to have that second try at it and to not think about the pressure this time — to know what it felt like with the lights and that warmth, which I felt was like a hug the second time.
BRADLEY I’m going to take that from you. I’ve only had one show so far, so all I’ve experienced is the frightening one.
HUTCHINSON We work so hard to get to this point in our life where we’re doing roles that we’ve dreamed of. And I don’t want to look back and think I let the pressure or the stress dim the time that I want to enjoy. It’s so crazy all the blood and sweat and tears that we put into it. And then it’s like six minutes? (Laughs).
BRADLEY I know. I’m always so upset afterward when I’m like, Did I even have a good time? Somebody told me that I came offstage after the third entrance and I was just like this: thumbs up in the air. I don’t even remember doing that. Before I was even done, I was like, I made it!
Dewdrop is a coveted role around here. How welcome did you feel?
HUTCHINSON I was nervous coming because there’s so many people in this company. My company is very small. There’s only 17 of us right now. So it was a big change. People would come up to me during class saying how excited they were about me being here. I felt very welcome. It was good vibes all around.
India, do we believe it?
BRADLEY Yeah! I think City Ballet is a different place than it [used to be]. You know, I don’t think you would have had the same experience [20 years ago] to be honest. I don’t think I would have had the same experience.
Right because neither of you would have danced Dewdrop at all.
HUTCHINSON Even backstage, there was so much love. People held my hands and were like, “I want you to do well, I’m rooting for you.” Getting that from the dancers was something that I was not expecting and really helped me because they’re right beside you. You’re sharing the stage, you’re sharing the space and giving yourself. Having them being on my side was just like all the energy I needed.