New York, New York
December 6 (E), 2014
“The Yorkville Nutcracker”
-- by Jerry Hochman
In a city dominated by New York City Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’,” where even American Ballet Theatre’s wonderful version by Alexei Ratmansky can’t gain a financial foothold, it’s easy to forget that there are many other Nutcracker, or Nutcracker derivative, performances by small companies and ballet schools scattered across the city – as well as in suburban venues. These productions provide an opportunity for neighborhood parents to take their children to their first Nutcracker without spending a boatload of cash or braving New York traffic (or subways), for relatives and family friends to see their children dance in their first ‘real’ ballet, and for local schools to show off their accomplishments and low-budget inventiveness.
None of these Nutcracker productions can match those by the Big Companies, but they have their own special virtues, and should not be overlooked. I saw several of them over the past few weeks. This review considers the first of three of these performances, “The Yorkville Nutcracker,” presented by Dances Patrelle.
After my initial exposure to Dances Patrelle earlier this year, I was eager to see Artistic Director Francis Patrelle’s Nutcracker production, which has been an Upper East Side community staple for nearly 20 years. I was not disappointed.
Mr. Patrelle maintains the essential Nutcracker story, but transfers the ‘home’ location from Germany (or some other European locale) to New York City – that is, New York in 1895. And not to just any part of New York, but to Yorkville, an Upper East Side neighborhood in which the host home, Gracie Mansion (where New York mayors live – or are entitled to live but don’t), is located. The setting allows Mr. Patrelle to maintain period costumes and to educate audiences about New York City late nineteenth century history, and it’s fun to see the story told in a different context, but the specific Yorkville setting is irrelevant except for Gracie Mansion and its proximity to the other featured New York locales: Central Park, the Dakota apartment building built the previous year on the other side of the world (Manhattan’s West Side), and the Botanical Gardens (located in some faraway galaxy called The Bronx).
And the characters can be confusing if one tries to keep track of them. Mr. Patrelle has provided detailed information about leading New Yorkers in 1895 – all of it apparently historically accurate. The owners of Gracie Mansion at the time were Hamlin and Jane Babcock. Jane Babcock, nee Wheaton, had an uncle, Noah Wheaton. And in 1895, William L. Strong had just been elected New York City’s mayor (which at the time meant Manhattan), and the city was already a destination for visiting dignitaries. In Mr. Patrelle’s adaptation of the Nutcracker story, the Babcocks invite the newly-elected mayor, his wife, and their children, to a Christmas Eve party. Also invited (and it’s not clear by whom) to the festivities are various foreign dignitaries (e.g., Mr. Arturo Baldasano, Consul General of Spain; H. Ruthven Platt, Consul General of Persia; Hsu Nai Kwang, Consul General of China….you get the idea) and their families. Knowing that these characters are supposed to have been real people may be educational, but keeping everyone straight is tough.
And how this fits in with the Nutcracker story is tougher – and somewhat strained. Even though the Babcock’s owned Gracie Mansion at the time, it’s the Strongs who appear to run the party, and whose daughter Mary has the dream. But the Drosselmeyer figure is Noah Wheaton, who is Jane Babcock’s uncle (and who had purchased Gracie mansion from….a Mr. Gracie), not a relative of the Strongs. He’s the one who brings gifts for the children, including Mayor Strong’s daughter. The gift he gives her is a ‘nutcracker’ costumed like a popular hero of the day, Yellowstone Kelly But when the Yellowstone Kelly Nutcracker comes to life (as opposed to when he’s an oversized moving doll), he’s Mayor Strong’s son, Putnam Bradlee Strong, Mary’s brother – the same bratty brother who broke Mary’s new Yellowstone Kelly Nutcracker toy.
While the New York history lesson (neatly summarized, with accompanying photographs, in the program notes) is interesting, particularly to a former history major, I suspect it’s lost on much of the audience, who most likely focus on the dancing and the overall story. And once you ignore the characters and their genealogy, “The Yorkville Nutcracker” works, because Mr. Patrelle’s choreography hits the appropriate notes, and because the performing young dancers are as engaging and as competent as they are. And how can you not like a Nutcracker that includes Teddy Roosevelt, one of Mayor Strong’s political appointees (for real), dressed as a Teddy Bear doll, and later featured as his somewhat self-inflated, and somewhat revered, self.
For the leading roles (other than Mary), including the leads in each of the character dances, the production relies on adults who have some connection with the company, and guest artists. Many of these adult dancers have had significant dance training and experience, and many also are trained as actors. And many of these dancer/actors have been playing the same characters in Mr. Patrelle’s production for years, in what has become, over time, an extended family production.
Over the years, Mr. Patrelle has invited prestigious dancers affiliated with prestigious companies to dance the lead roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. This season, the company imported Abi Stafford and Adrian Danchig-Waring, each a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, to dance these roles.. Not surprisingly, Ms. Stafford and Mr. Danchig-Waring danced impeccably, albeit somewhat cautiously on the small Kaye Theater stage. Although not listed as a guest artist, another NYCB alumna, Shoshana Rosenfield, danced a fine, liquid Dewdrop. The other ‘dancing adults’, who are company dancers, administrators, ballet masters, or teachers, or who wear multiple company hats, included the leads in Mr. Patrelle’s wonderful “Snow Dance,” which takes place in Central Park and that concludes Act I: Katie Keith Dettling and Grant Dettling (company co-directors) as the Snow Queen and King, and Matthew Dibble as the Snow Prince, each of whom handled their assignments well. (All three, as well as Ms. Rosenfield, are listed as company Principal Dancers.) The divertissements were all nicely done (Dances Patrelle dancers led each dance, accompanied by a ‘corps’ of young student dancers), and I particularly appreciated that the two lead young dancers were each given an opportunity to join the ‘older’ dancers in two of these segments.
Young dancers Alexa Malone danced a vibrant and vivacious Mary Strong at the performance I saw (two other young dancers portrayed Mary at other performances), and Finn Duggan handled the dual role of Putnam Bradlee Strong and the live Yellowstone Kelly Nutcracker with appropriate flourish. Although I could not identify all the other young dancers, they all performed well; and, more importantly, gave the production a shot of genuine enthusiasm. (One young girl stood out from the others not just because she was a head taller, but because she had a palpable inner-directed enthusiasm and concentration level which, coupled with appropriate technical ability, made her impossible to ignore.) These student dancers were gathered from ten different New York ballet schools of high repute (including, but not limited to, ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Ballet Academy East, Manhattan Youth Ballet, The French Academie of Ballet, the Joffrey School, and the Ballet Hispanico School) – and many of them also have roles in Nutcracker productions presented by their ‘home’ schools. The young dancers are not identified by school, so it’s not possible to say which young dancer is a product of which school, but the fact that all these dancers – a veritable cast of thousands - performed in a cohesive and collegial manner is nothing short of miraculous. And Mr Patrelle deserves kudos for choreography that appears to be as entertaining to perform as it is to watch, and for creating an atmosphere in which everyone, on stage and off, is having a grand time.