Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, New York, NY; December 19 (e), 2014

Jerry Hochman

'A Knickerbocker Suite'.  Photo courtesy Manhattan Youth Ballet - Copy

‘A Knickerbocker Suite’.
Photo courtesy Manhattan Youth Ballet – Copy

Under the direction of Founder and Executive Artistic Director Rose Caiola and its group of faculty members and artistic collaborators/choreographers (many of whom are culled from that little company a few blocks away – the New York City Ballet), Manhattan Youth Ballet has become a force in recent years. Although New York has many highly competent and prestigious ballet schools, MYB, which in the overall scheme of things is relatively new, generates considerable buzz, for good reason.

“The Knickerbocker Suite”, MYB’s “Nutcracker” production, has been its seasonal presentation since 2009. This was my first exposure to it. Created by Ms. Caiola and Elliott Arkin, an artist whose work is described in the program notes (accurately, based on his work here) as operating in spaces between high art and popular culture, the production has a cohesive but irreverent style. It works as well as it does because of the collective artistic capabilities of the staff (who choreographed individual segments), and the high caliber of MYB’s student dancers. If any adults are involved in the on-stage action (it’s not easy to tell), that involvement is minimal; the roles are danced primarily by students at various class levels. And although one can tell that the individual segments were separately rehearsed (as well as separately choreographed) and then pasted together to make the whole, once the dancing gets going (for example, after the introductory segment), it holds together well. It’s a production that is akin to a school’s spring recital, only better.

Here New York City is the centerpiece – not by way of an artificial change of location, but because the city is, specifically, Clara’s dream. The piece opens to what’s described as a ‘Thanksgiving Dinner’, attended by Mom & Dad, their daughter Clara, an Aunt and Uncle, a Best Friend, Cousins, Grandfather Knickerbocker, Nick (who eventually becomes Clara’s escort through her dream), and a turkey that had seen better days as an oversized doorstop. There’s no plot summary; instead, there’s a voice-over narration, delivered by actor Michael Cerveris, that is difficult (at least from where I was seated) to hear clearly, describing the stage action. What I was able to discern is that this may be a suburban family, visited by a strange Drosselmeyer-figure of a grandfather, who, contrary to the information she’s been fed about how bad a place New York City is, tells Clara that it is a wondrous place of intellectual and visual stimulation. This, perhaps more than the thought of a sugary, high-calorie kingdom, appeals to the teen-aged Clara, who wants to be a part of it. New York, New York.

This ‘prologue’ of sorts is mercifully short. When the artificial Thanksgiving/Christmas/whatever partying ends, when Clara begins to dream, and when the characters begin to dance, the piece comes to life, and I stopped cringing in my seat and thoroughly enjoyed the creativity and quality, as well as the quality student performances, on display.

As Clara dreams, we see what may have been a Christmas Tree (or maybe it was just a large houseplant) grow. And just when you cynically start thinking ‘ho hum, what a novel idea’, this ‘tree’ becomes something that, to me, looks like Manhattan’s iconic Chrysler Building. And then there’s an invasion – not of mice, but of city rats and cockroaches! What else would you expect in a city dream? Whatever his relationship to Grandfather Knickerbocker may be (I thought I heard the narration describe him as the grandfather’s monkey – which couldn’t be right), it clear that he’s not a nutcracker come to life, since there’s no nutcracker in this production. Nevertheless, Nick becomes Clara’s young savior, and, brandishing a can of insecticide (probably organic), promptly sprays the nasty critters into submission.

Clara and Nick are then transported into the Land of the Manhattanites (my title). They first view shoppers strolling on Fifth Avenue (scenes are projected on a rear screen for each of these segments, which, in some cases, are augmented by a table or some other scene prop), where, in addition to shoppers the pair encounter a young couple in love, a street vendor, and friends…people one might typically encounter on a staged Fifth Avenue, except they dance. And then it begins to snow – with student dancer snowflakes.

As Clara and Nick make their way to Rockefeller Center, a large star appears in the rear screen projection (the star on the Rock Center Christmas Tree – or perhaps it’s the Trump Star on Fifth Avenue). Eventually the projection focusses on those Rockefeller Center angels that line the pathways toward the Tree…and the stage is suddenly filed with little dancing Rockefeller Center angels. The segment is very nicely choreographed by MYB’s Head of Primary Levels, Natalia Boesch (a former ABT dancer), and was delightfully performed by the school’s youngest (or close to it) dancers.

'A Knickerbocker Suite'. Photo courtesy Manhattan Youth Ballet

‘A Knickerbocker Suite’.
Photo courtesy Manhattan Youth Ballet

The couple’s magical mystery tour continues to a Museum (by Head of Classical Repertoire Marina Stavitskaya), where they encounter a dancing King and Queen, Harlequin and Columbine, and Pierrot and Pierette; and what appears to be a diner, where they’re entertained by the executive chef and the wait staff – or perhaps it was a restaurant in Chinatown, since the wait staff danced to the Chinese Dance (all of it nicely choreographed by Head Faculty and former NYCB dancer Deborah Wingert). They then proceed to a coffee shop, and an athletic event at Madison Square Garden, where young dancers are fans who don athletic shirts and various New York team hats, and, led by some older players (one of whom was costumed more like a referee), dance a wonderful stage-filling dance (both segments by NYCB Principal Dancer, and MYB Artistic Advisor, Daniel Ulbricht). The couple then encounter pigeons (ubiquitous in New York streets and parks), in a segment brilliantly choreographed by Ms. Wingert (to ‘Marzipan’). After feeding these upper-crust birds (this is New York, after all) and watching them dance (like pigeons), the focus shifts to Ellis Island, which is not exactly part of Manhattan, but this hardly matters – particularly since many Ellis Island immigrants ended up on Manhattan’s now trendy, then teeming, Lower East Side. Here they see dancing immigrants (well…they had to fit the divertissements in somewhere) – another stage-spanning segment, choreographed by Ms. Boesch and Nick Kepley – featuring dancing by American Girls, Immigrants from Holland, Scotland, Russia, and Italy, all overseen by a Statue of Liberty. The costumes (which are uncredited – they’re all very well done) and the different ethnic dances create a fascinating visual and choreographic symphony, and all the student dancers in this segment (plus Lady Liberty) made the scene live.

Finally, Clara and Nick make their way to Central Park, where they watch the Flowers dance (choreography again by Ms. Wingert), led by a Butterfly, the head of the Parks Department, and a couple of Parks and Recreation workers (all student dancers). Before Clara’s dream ends, Clara and Nick dance an elaborate and glorious Grand Pas de Deux, created by Choreographer-in-Residence Brian Reeder (another former NYCB and ABT, dancer). And all this is to Tchaikovsky’s music – his “Nutcracker Suite” became the “Knickerbocker Suite”. And upon the dance’s conclusion, Pyotr Ilyich yields to Francis Albert, singing, what else, “New York, New York”.

This outline illustrates what makes this non-Nutcracker “Nutcracker” so entertaining: the imagination and creativity, and just a little jingoism, that comes together to create a coherent presentation that’s a different species of “Nutcracker”. However, a simple scene description can’t begin to acknowledge the quality of the student dancers who performed to choreography that not only challenged them to do better than they might have thought they could, but to do it in a uniquely interesting way.

I’m somewhat uncomfortable identifying any of these young dancers, since there are so many of them, and since MYB students rotate in the featured roles throughout the performance run, and a young dancer that I did not see in a featured role at this performance might have performed outstandingly in the same role on a different day. But not acknowledging those I did see would be unfair as well, so I’ll compromise and highlight a few who I found particularly impressive. Brian Casey, abetted by Julian Donahue and Alessio Perrone, danced The Players in the ‘Big Game’ segment with extraordinary flourish and skill. Tessa Freeman performed the ‘Prima Pigeon’ ballerina with a masterful combination of grace and comic flair – and the ‘secondary’ corps Pigeons (Rachel Ackerman, Gabriela Chapman, Clara Gardner, and Eleanor Lavin) helped make that segment one of the most fun to watch. Seika Kawamata danced a ravishing Columbine (to Mr. Casey’s Harlequin), and Julia McColligan a delightful Butterfly (abetted by Parks personnel Bryan Rodriguez, Mr. Donahue, and Mr. Casey). Maya Adler and Bethany Dixon led the Flowers with finesse in the same segment.

Of course, the lead couple, Mary Attaway and Marcelo Martinez as Clara and Nick, had to perform exquisitely, and they did. Mr. Martinez, costumed in a ‘formal’ outfit (white shirt and ‘sleeveless’ black tuxedo) throughout the dream scenes, did an excellent job partnering Ms. Attaway even though she’s a few inches taller. Perhaps there’s something about the name ‘Marcelo’ that creates wonderful partners. And Ms. Attaway, with her golden hair and dressed in a stunning little-black-leotard with diaphanous black skirt, ready for her dream ‘night-on-the-town’, has a very lovely stage presence, and performed her complex pas de deux with Mr. Martinez very well indeed.