Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
Axelrod Performing Arts Center
Deal Park, New Jersey

December 2, 2023 evening
The Polar Express

Jerry Hochman

Everyone needs to see The Nutcracker at least once. Or twice. Or whatever number of children or grandchildren you have. But few local area companies/ schools can produce the equivalent of a Balanchine or Ratmansky Nutcracker (the productions by New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, respectively) that can reveal new secrets on every viewing. So unless you go to see your own child perform (or in the case of professional companies, to see particular dancers), or you’re a critic, the same story told over and over and over again can get tiring. Sure there are variations on the same theme from one company and its affiliated school to another (e.g., a “rock” Nutcracker; a hip-hop Nutcracker; a comic or satirical Nutcracker; etc.). But at bottom, the style may change, but the story doesn’t.

I’m aware that several companies and their affiliated schools produce holiday performances that tell a different story (“The Snow Maiden” for example). But since the focus of these smaller, relatively local institutions is to give their students stage time, as well as, in some cases, to be financial engines, there’s not much chance for choreographic variety.

(l-r) Emma Lightbody-McAllan, Robert Taylor, Jr., Jake Ward
and two Elves
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

Now comes Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater (AXCBT), a New Jersey company that’s based a hop, skip, and jeté from the Jersey Shore, to present something different – a dance/theater production of Chris Van Allsburg’s celebrated Christmas story “The Polar Express.” In its premier season, the piece already displays considerable merit beyond its novelty – and I’d expect nothing less from an ambitious company, founded in 2018, whose director attended the Juilliard School and whose Artistic Advisory Board includes alumnae from Paul Taylor Dance Company and Martha Graham Dance Company.

The story told in “The Polar Express” (originally published in 1985) is relatively simple, emphasized in the original by Van Allsburg’s superb illustrations. In a nut(cracker)shell (and for the benefit of those, like me, who predate the book), a young boy, lying awake one Christmas Eve, is awakened by the sound of a train that he soon finds waiting for him outside his house: a train going to the North Pole.  The boy boards the magical train, and is welcomed by many other pajama-clad children.

After the train arrives at the North Pole, the boy (identified in the book as “Hero Boy”) is handpicked by Santa to receive his choice of the first gift of Christmas. The boy asks for and receives a bell from one of the reindeer’s harnesses and places it in the pocket of his robe. But after Santa sleighs off for his annual toy deliveries, the boy discovers that the bell has fallen through a hole in his pocket. Downtrodden, Hero Boy arrives home. On Christmas morning, his sister finds a small package for him under the tree. Hero Boy opens the box and discovers that it contains the bell, which, initially, only he and his little sister Sarah can hear – not his parents. After the passage of time, even she can no longer hear it. But Hero Boy, now grown, still can.

Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

In 1986, “The Polar Express” won the prestigious Caldecott Medal for illustration of an American children’s picture book. By 1989, a million copies had been sold – more each year than the last – and the book had made the bestseller list four years in a row. In 2004 it was made into an Oscar-nominated “motion capture” film starring Tom Hanks, and it has spawned many real-life train rides in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. I understand that there’s also a video game based on the story.

For a company not on the map – yet – the program is very well done, and undeniably refreshing. While there’s some choreographic license taken, the book’s story and themes have been maintained. The company’s Artistic Director, and Director and Choreographer of this production, Gabriel Chajnik, has done a highly commendable job overseeing everything.

Most importantly, this isn’t just a rehashing of the book. It’s filled with imaginative choreography by Chajnik, and for the student dancers by Associate Choreographer Linda Kilponen (with additional choreography by Kathleen Pearlberg and company dancer John John Tarrayo) as well as a sparkling score consisting primarily of clever arrangements of vintage Christmas songs by Dan Wells and Music Directors Ava Valentino and Kara Leigh (Chajnik himself composed one original song). Both keep things flowing and the audience entertained and interested.

Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

The characters follow the book. The lead characters are Hero Boy, Hero Girl (not part of the original, but added in the film), The Conductor, Santa Claus, and a cameo appearance by Hero Boy’s Mother and Father. They, together with the AXCBT dancers, provide the nucleus that holds together a diminutive army of dancing train passengers, penguins, elves, rag dolls, and teddy bears. I didn’t see a partridge in a pear tree, but it’s probably in there too, among the dancing Trees.

Additionally, it should be noted that the lead characters are professional actors and pre-professional youngsters (Hero Boy and Hero Girl), each with performance experience. This adds a highly sophisticated level to the performance as a whole that small-scale Nutcracker performances can’t match. [Retaining professional Guest Artists to dance the Nutcracker Grand Pas de Deux, as many small-scale ballet companies/ schools do, is not the same thing.]

The production is peppered with scenes from the book, each specifically denominated in the program – 13 in Act One, and 11 in Act Two – most of which are combinations of dance and music. That it all moves with the speed and smoothness of the Polar Express itself is perhaps the production’s most remarkable feature. Indeed, at times The Polar Express appears to have as much of a kinship to Broadway musicals as to small-scale Nutcracker productions.

The piece opens with Hero Boy in his room about to go to bed, accompanied by his Santa doll. Soon he breaks into a song solo (“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”), with some dancing included. Initially I thought that the singing voice was pre-recorded, since the boy’s voice was so strong. It took several minutes to see that he was equipped with a barely visible microphone headset: it was all sung, as well as danced, live. The performance was off to an impressive start.

(l-r) Robert Taylor, Jr. and Jake Ward
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

And it continued this way through “Carol of the Bells,” a scene inserted as a general introduction to the entire cast (and which provides some of the production’s finest choreography), when the AXCBT dancers emerge wearing white costumes, as if they were images from the Hero Boy’s dream. Seamlessly this segues, with minimal dialogue, to “Tickets Please,” with the Conductor, Hero Boy, Hero Girl, and Passengers (student dancers in pajamas) leading the dance – with most singing concurrently. Somewhere along the way Hero Girl is introduced, first appearing with student dancers in pajamas, although she’s distinguished by her different costume (sort of a nightgown, in white) as well as by her consistently-radiated spunk.

After being invited by the good-natured Conductor, the student dancers, as well as Hero Boy and Hero Girl, board the train (they set up the train car’s chairs). The children are served Hot Chocolate followed by an Ice Dance (the choreography for the AXCBT dancers include slides across the stage), and a sugar-sweet singing duet by Hero Boy and Hero Girl (“The Heart of Christmas”). [There’s also a train breakdown, a scene not included in the summary I read of the original – perhaps it’s a substitute for the book’s Hobo scene, which does not appear in this production.] Eventually all reach the North Pole (which has a similar “feel” as the Land of the Sweets in Nutcracker productions, but there’s no emphasis on sweets, and there are no Fairies. Instead there are Elves (I suppose distant cousins of Fairies), as well as dancing Penguins, Reindeer, Rag Dolls, and Teddy Bears – and a curmudgeonly but lovable Santa Claus.

Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
and Sealth Grover as Santa Claus
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

I could go on like this scene by scene, but that’s unnecessary. I suspect you get the idea. Except for a single intermission, the action is virtually non-stop. This is not your parents’, and their parents’, Nutcracker. This is new and different, and great fun.

To the surprise of no one, the choreography for the characters portrayed by company dancers alone, or together with older children in the cast (and even, at times, with the next tier of children) is the most entertaining. Significantly, many of these dances are integrated with younger children dancing appropriately elementary choreography, which effectively, and commendably, allow them to appear part of a whole rather than isolated by age. And it’s far superior to the admittedly few examples of comparable choreography I’ve seen by companies/ schools that draw primarily from area children. It’s not Balanchine, but it’s not intended to be – all of it is geared to the capabilities of the adults and children involved.

And there’s no single style. There’s a lot of ballet, including pointe work, but there’s also rock and roll, street dance, and a jazzy nod to Broadway’s Chicago and Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Most importantly, however, is that whatever the choreography, it’s an essential component of the story, not something out of place inserted merely to provide dancing opportunities divorced from the storyline.

Allyssa Harris and Dennzyl Green
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

There are a couple of component parts that I found wanting: the aforementioned “Train Breakdown” scene and the penultimate scene, when Hero Boy’s Mother and Father briefly appear, neither of which were as well conceived as everything else. But the latter scene passes quickly, and both apparent deficiencies are overwhelmed by the rest of The Polar Express.

In the performance I attended, the Hero Boy was played by Jake Ward (who alternates in the role with Christopher Pollak), and the Hero Girl by Olivianna Cesario (who alternates with Emma Lightbody-McAllan and Julia Westby). Robert Taylor, Jr., is The Conductor, and Santa Claus is portrayed by Sealth Grover.

Taylor has appeared on Broadway in SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as a variety of television roles. His Conductor, who is required to sing, dance, and consistently put on a happy face, is outstanding. Young Ward and Cesario also have had prior stage experience that shows in their performances here. [It’s incomprehensible to me that her bio indicates that Cesario is only in the 7th Grade (Ward’s grade isn’t indicated).] Grover is confined to his Santa Suit and an oversized headpiece that makes him look perhaps the way he’s supposed to look (a good-natured wise old troll rather than the romanticized image of a portly white-bearded gentleman), but he imbues his Santa with character and somehow gives an immobile face some implicit expression.

John John Tarrayo
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

The cast also consists of seven members of AXCBT (Gianna Carrol, Dennzyl Green, Alyssa Harris, Sarah Takash, John John Tarrayo, Arianna Tsivkin, Rohan Zhou-Lee) plus company apprentice Lilakoi Grover, as well as the young student dancers (from the affiliated Axelrod Academy of Performing Arts) at various levels of age and proficiency. [On the second weekend, they alternate with young students from another school, Gotta Dance.] All the AXCBT dancers danced well, mostly as an ensemble, but Tarrayo was featured in several scenes, enabling him to develop characters that had … character, as well as to exhibit a greater variety of dance styles. The student dancers, particularly the older group, lent youthful enthusiasm to whatever role they danced – and the younger ones were responsible for expected irregularity combined with cuteness overload.

Every facet of this production is original (including the arrangements of the vintage songs), and most everything was designed and executed far better than anyone not familiar with Axelrod PAC productions could have expected. Each ingredient enriches the production.

There are physical sets on stage that serve multiple functions: in addition to the Hero Boy’s bed and what appear to be a partial background of simulated mountains, there’s a set of roughly five rectangular constructions that serve as the train’s cars, and they’re easy enough to move around (as some of the younger members of the cast do) when needed to serve other functions. Credit to set designer, Fred Sorrentino.

Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
Photo by John Posada

Against these structures, as well as the “mountain”-like construction and the upstage scrim behind it, a relatively constant flow of images are projected that give the flavor of Van Allsburg’s original illustrations, particularly of the massive-looking train engine, and that also provide a sense of the train’s speed through villages, forests, and mountains. It’s not as elaborate or detailed as might be the case with major New York ballet companies, but for this level the projections are quite impressive. The video mapping was done by Chajnik, abetted by videographer Al Amara, lighting designer Erik Herskowitz, and sound designer Gerry Gironda. The sound in particular, often an afterthought at this level, is produced clear as one of Santa’s Elf’s bells, both for the stage performers and pre-recorded sounds (e.g., the train’s whistle sounds, the accompanying music for the dancing/ singing sequences, and that bell).

Equally significant are the costumes, designed by Janessa Urwin (who regularly designs costumes for American Repertory Ballet as well as other ballet companies, and theater and film), all of which are well-conceived. The head pieces in particular (for the wolf, the reindeer, and Santa Claus) look quite intricate and colorful. Indeed, the headpiece for the Wolf (wildly executed with faux fearfulness by apprentice Grover) appeared so intricate that at the conclusion of that episode, as the Wolf faces the audience, I could swear I saw those wolf-eyes move.

Lilakoi Grover and Jake Ward
in Gabriel Chajnik’s “The Polar Express”
:Photo by John Posada

All these components are essential to the production, but it’s the choreography and the lead characters that carry the weight of audience expectations, just as the younger children maintain the interest of parents in the audience and others who admire cuteness and, mostly, faithful replication of the choreography they were obligated to present.

This fidelity is also reflected in spoken comments from a voice identifying itself as that of Hero Boy as an adult that bookend The Polar Express, and that exactly replicate the beginning and ending paragraphs of Van Alsburg’s book. Indeed, the ending summarizes the book’s “gotta believe” theme: “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

AXCBT is the first, and only, company granted permission to stage The Polar Express. So if you’re unable to attend this year (performances continue through December 10), keep your eyes open for a repeat series of performances in the future.