Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, New York, NY; June 7, 2014

Jerry Hochman

When is a performance a recital, and when is a recital a performance?

I attended Manhattan Youth Ballet’s (MYB) June 7 program, labelled “A Celebration of the Jazz Age”, and assumed I’d be attending a performance. But it was a recital – essentially, MYB’s end-of-year celebration of student accomplishment and tributes to graduates.

However, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t your ordinary dance school recital. The dances, overall, were selected or capably crafted to be both entertaining for their audience and to show-off the accomplishments of the MYB students, who, overall, were excellently-trained dancers and unexpectedly competent and confident performers.

In the overall scheme of things, MYB is a relatively recent professional-level ballet school. It was founded by Rose Caiola, a former dancer and actress, in 1994, and originally named Ballet Maestro. In 2008, the school moved to the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center on West 60th Street and 11th Avenue, which Ms. Caiola designed to be a bi-level studio and performance space, and where the MYB performance took place. Over the years, MYB has attracted high-caliber teachers and in-house choreographers, including Deborah Wingert (Head of Faculty) and Adam Hendrickson, former dancers with New York City Ballet; Irina Dvorovenko and Brian Reeder (Choreographer in Residence), former dancers with American Ballet Theatre; and guest teacher (and one of the rehearsal coaches), Daniel Ulbricht (Artistic Advisor), a current NYCB principal.

While a performing pedigree doesn’t always translate into teaching or choreographic ability, in this case, combined with the talents of the other members of the MYB faculty whose names aren’t as recognizable, it obviously has with respect to developing the students’ innate talent. Equally important is the school’s ability, though its faculty, to transmit enthusiasm as well as performing competence to its students, which was thoroughly evident in the performance. Or recital. Whatever.

It would be inappropriate to highlight individual student standouts. This wasn’t a competition, and highlighting one without doing the same to others would be unfair (although in certain situations not identifying a particularly impressive dancer would be unfair as well, so in a couple of cases I’ll describe the young dancers who I couldn’t help but specifically notice). Suffice it to say that each of these students acquitted themselves very well.

The program began with a piece titled “Let’s Dance”, choreographed by Marina Stavitskaya (the Company’s Head of Classical Repertoire) to music by Duke Ellington. The dance, with an appropriately jazzy sensibility, was structured interestingly, and provided a fine introductory showcase for the thirteen dancers (eleven girls, two boys), who were among the more experienced students at the school. It was followed by “Ragtime Dolls”, by teachers and former dancers Natalia Boesch (the school’s “Head of Primary Levels”) and Karen Lacy, to music by Milton Ager, which was a showcase for five of the younger girls at the school.

“No Trumpet, Please”, by Mr. Hendrickson, followed, and was one of the program’s highlights. For a group of fourteen girls who appeared to at a mid-level of training, Mr. Hendrickson skillfully crafted a piece of intelligence as well as enthusiastic execution. The girls move in and out of a changing form that looks like a bowling-pin triangle, breaking the form and then returning to it, and performing in smaller sub-groups of varying sizes, The piece is a superb group showcase, but what impressed me as much was that individual dancers’ stage personalities, at least the stage personalities they have at this young age, were apparent even in this ensemble work, from the tiny young dancer who you would have to pay attention to even if she weren’t in the ‘#1 pin’ position, to the taller girls in the back of the triangle, and the others in-between.

Following a demonstration of character dancing choreographed by Ms. Stavitskaya for the older students, the program returned to its jazz theme with an entertaining dance that was perfectly suited in tempo and sound and ‘attitude’ for a few (twenty-two) of the school’s younger students called “Promenade”, choreographed by Ms. Boesch and Ms. Lacy to the classic Gershwin music from “Shall We Dance”. Although all the dancers did a fine job with it, one unidentified boy stood out – he at first looked hopelessly nerdy and out of his element, but was obviously having such a great time that, out of his element or not, he became an endearing focus of attention.

“Promenade” was followed by a dance created by faculty member Sarah Goocher to another jazz classic: Eddie Condon’s version of “At the Jazz Band Ball”. In a more contemporary than ballet style, this was enthusiastically performed by twenty-eight students. Obviously, it is no small accomplishment to pull off any dance, much less a dance for students that involves so many in one piece, but both these pieces were structured such that the stage didn’t look busy and each student shined.

“At the Jazz Band Ball” segued neatly into the crowd-pleasing Act I finale, “Whaaaat?”, by Frederick Earl Mosley to music by Roderick Jackson. Comprised of twenty one students spanning varied age levels, the percussive score (drums played by Mr. Jackson; percussion by Michael Mustafa) and the multi-faceted choreography (a little jazz, a little hip-hop, a little Ailey, and all fun) gave the students an opportunity to be more expressive than they might otherwise be, and, dressed in oversized suits, they reveled in the opportunity to dance to a different drummer.

Following intermission, the second half of the program began with Mr. Reeder’s “What is This Thing”, to Duke Ellington’s music, which was another standout in an evening of standouts. The piece, for five girls (apparently the oldest/most advanced group) and two boys was a dry, sophisticated take on attraction’s transient nature, featuring some high-heeled shoes and wandering roses. This ballet was followed by a very cute dance for a group of fourteen girls, one boy, and a piano, choreographed Ms. Boesch and Ms. Lacy to Jerome Kern’s “’Til the Clouds Roll By”.

Another example of character dancing, on a younger group of eleven girls (most of whom appeared earlier in the Hendrickson dance) and one boy, was less ‘orthodox’ in character than the earlier character piece that Ms. Stavitskaya choreographed for the older students, but much more ingratiating. And like the earlier Hendrickson piece, although all the dancers were entertaining and vivacious, the girl who looked a foot shorter than the others appeared particularly and precociously compelling to watch.

After another piece for a mid-age-range group of twelve students choreographed by Ms. Boesch, to Kern’s “A Waltz in Swingtime”, the program concluded with excerpts from George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Staged by Ms. Wingert, the suite of eight dances, led primarily by the older students (some of whom were graduating and moving on to professional career) was a superb way to conclude the evening.

Since these students are older, and specifically identified by name as the dancers in the individual segments, I’ll break my ‘rule’ and identify them here. While Balanchine’s choreography was necessarily abridged to a degree, the ballet lost little of its luster. Highlights were ‘Biding My Time’ (danced very well by Samuel David, Marcelo Martinez, Karl Picuira de Pimodan, Louis Picuira de Pimodan, and Marcel Wilson), ‘S’Wonderful’, performed by Scout Inghiterra and Mr. Martinez, and particularly ‘Embraceable You’, which opened the suite, performed by Sophia Williams (who is somewhat remindful of Teresa Reichlen in the same role) and Mr. Wilson. But all of these students (in addition to those identified, Maya Adler, Kira Anderson, Mary Attaway, Marlo Knapp-Fadini, Bridget Scanlon, Erin Chong, Brianna Stankus, Sierra Walsh, Brian Casey, and Carl Smith-Hudson) did commendable work.

New York has many ballet schools dedicated to training future professional dancers which are not affiliated with major (or not yet major) companies. And with a glut of dancers positioning themselves to transition into teaching/coaching roles when their performing years begin to ebb, there are plenty of schools that feature classes taught by dancers who excelled with major ballet companies. But based on this program, Manhattan Youth Ballet imbues its students not only with technical skill, but with a commendable breadth of training and, more importantly, a captivating and infectious love of performing. I have already seen several MYB graduates dancing with major companies (and without knowing their training background, have already commented favorably on their performing skills), and based on what I saw in this program, I expect to see more of them in the future.