Florence Gould Hall, New York, NY; December 19 (m), 2014

Jerry Hochman

Founded in 1978 by Artistic Director Diana Byer, New York Theater Ballet is a widely heralded ‘chamber’ ballet company, whose evenings of rarely presented and nearly forgotten dances, coupled with new contemporary pieces, under the titular umbrella “Legends and Visionaries”, provide an invaluable service to the dance world. The programs I’ve seen have been well-presented and well-danced, charting new ground as they rediscover old pathways, and its programs often seem to nudge the ‘Big Companies’ to return a long-abandoned ballet to their repertoire. As I have said before, if NYTB didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented.

NYTB’s “The Nutcracker” is not the same type of program. This version, which dates from 2011 and is choreographed by Keith Michael (who also made the company’s previous “Nutcracker”, which ran from 1985-2010), is a small, intimate ballet, obviously intended to be accessible to young audiences. This is as it should be. This NYTB Nutcracker is part of its “Once Upon a Ballet Series”, which is geared to presenting classical ballets in a form that young children can appreciate rather than be overwhelmed by. The number of dancers involved, both from the company and from NYTB’s official training school, Ballet School NY, is small; the sets are simple and functional; and the characters are created in broad strokes more for effect than nuance. If you try to see it through a child’s eyes, it all looks like fun – which is the way it’s supposed to look.

The time and locale for this “Nutcracker” is slightly different from the usual. Here, the circa 1907 setting allows for an art nouveau slant (the ‘picture frame’ in which some characters pose and from which some emerge and dance, and some costume touches, look vaguely art nouveau-ish), and the locale is non-specific – the program notes describe the location of the Stahlbaum home as “on a grand street in a grand city.” The scenic design is by Gillian Bradshaw-Smith, (who also, coincidentally, designed the sets for the Dances Patrelle “Yorkville Nutcracker”), and the costumes are by Sylvia Nolan, who is Resident Costume Designer for the Metropolitan Opera.

The story is your basic “Nutcracker” story, condensed, and made somewhat sillier than usual. The most significant alteration is to the character of Drosselmeyer. He’s still a strange duck, but no longer in any way a ‘sinister’ character. This Drosselmeyer is first seen entrapped in the innards of the mantel-clock he has crafted, accompanied by clownish Tick-Tocks, danced with considerable charm by Alexandra Angrist, Alison Enters, and Kaitlyn Pohly (the only student dancers in the production identified by name). As portrayed by company dancer Mitchell Kilby, Drosselmeyer is a cross between the Nutty Professor, a Marx brother, and a human butterfly. The silliness may grate on adults more familiar with high-octane “Nutcracker” productions, but it’s perfect for parents who want to introduce young children to the basic story without any attendant scariness.

There are some delicious touches. The mantel clock (which, together with that picture frame, provides the production’s essential set), not surprisingly, has separate hour and minute hands. During the battle between the mice and the soldiers, these hands are ripped off (literally) and become play-swords in the hands of Queen Mouserinks (the Mouse Queen) and the Nutcracker Prince. As the program notes indicate, “minutes and hours clash in the air.” Neat. And the mice keep getting tripped up, or lead around, or imprisoned, by their own tails. Cute. All of this appears calculated to impact the young children in the audience to a maximum degree without requiring much in the way of bells and whistles.

As Clara, Amanda Treiber convincingly assumes the wide-eyed wonder of a young girl, while her Nutcracker Prince, Stephen Campanella, whom I recall from American Repertory Ballet, is a worldly Nutcracker Boy, befitting a character who is both Drosselmeyer’s Nephew Nathaniel and a Prince in the Land of the Sweets. Rie Ogura, a company dancer who has distinguished herself in other company productions, was a commanding Sugar Plum Fairy, and Michael Wells her gallant Cavalier. They doubled as the Stahlbaum parents.

In the character dances and divertissements, the participating company dancers (Alexis Branagan, Nayomi Van Brunt, Carmella Lauer, Mayu Oguri, Marius Arhire, Brent Whitney, and Sandra Ross), a subset of the full NYTB Company, played duplicate roles. The highlights were the Chinese Dance, in which the two dancers utilized pairs of wooden sticks, like oversized chopsticks, to pound on the ground as if they were drumsticks, or to lift themselves up like crutches; the dance of the Marzipan Shepherdess, which was actually portrayed, for a change, by a shepherdess herding her sheep (the student dancers pranced around with sheep masks; the shepherdess with a wolf mask); the Russian Dance (‘Russian Boules’), which was performed engagingly by the school students; the dance of Harlequin & Arlequina, performed by Mr. Whitney and Ms. Branagan (who might also be a natural Clara in this production); and the Waltz of the Flowers, in which Clara and the Nutcracker Prince joined company soloists and students.

While on a much lower decibel level than other area “Nutcracker” presentations, the smiles on the faces of the young children exiting the theater at the performance’s conclusion is testament to the fact that this NYTB Nutcracker successfully resonated with its target audience.