New York Theatre Ballet
— with Students from New York Theatre Ballet School
Florence Gould Hall
New York, New York

December 16, 2023
Keith Michael’s The Nutcracker

Mindy Aloff

The New York Theatre Ballet (NYTB), which just celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary, is a small, valiant company of classically trained dancers with an exquisitely chosen repertoire of dance miniatures. Its choreographers range from the nineteenth-century August Bournonville, to twentieth-century George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, and Merce Cunningham, to the very-much-alive-and-kicking Sir Richard Alston, Pam Tanowitz, current artistic director Steven Melendez, and many others, with, as a comic fillip, a brilliant flick of dance-theater by the late postmodernist David Gordon.

NYTB has been nurtured first and foremost by its founder, the classical dancer and teacher Diana Byer — an alumna of the now-legendary James Waring-David Vaughan company Dance Associates and also of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Byer is the founder as well of NYTB’s LIFT Community Service Program, which, in the words of Pointe Magazine, “provides dance scholarships to children facing economic uncertainty or homelessness” and is the subject of a heralded 2022 film documentary. Melendez is a former LIFT recipient who went on to earn critical acclaim as a NYTB dancer, to become a principal dancer in Estonia as well as a star in Japan (where he danced for a decade before becoming NYTB’s artistic director), and along the way to gain multiple awards for his dancing.

Sarah Stafford and Charles Rosario
in Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo by Steven Melendez

In 2022, Byer retired as artistic director of the company. However, she still directs NYTB’s school, which she also founded and whose syllabus is based on the Cecchetti ballet technique in which Byer herself was trained. The students of the school have regular opportunities to perform, both in studio concerts with live piano accompaniment in their classroom in the school’s current location at St. Mark’s Church, in Greenwich Village, and, several times a year, with members of the company in fully decorated and dressed productions at Florence Gould Hall, on East 59th Street between Madison and Park.

These ingeniously designed one-hour theatrical fantasies — grouped under the rubric “Once Upon A Ballet” — are geared primarily for young families with small children (three years and older), with elementary-school-aged performers making up a sizable portion of the cast. Owing in part to their stage charm and in part to the fact that the audience needn’t get dressed up and/or remain totally silent, the shows are usually well-attended, sometimes selling out.

New York Theatre Ballet in Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo Courtesy of New York Theatre Ballet

And yet, although these programs are developed for the experience and attention spans of youngsters not yet fully domesticated, their concepts, appointments, choreography, and visual presentations reach out to adults (including balletomanes) as well, inviting us to smile at wittily condensed variations on the great full-length classics that are available elsewhere. At their best, these diminutive ballets offer the charm — even, sometimes, the magic — of nineteenth-century toy theaters and other miniatures. Visual poems in themselves are the exquisite costumes of Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan (whose day job is making costumes for the Metropolitan Opera) for such “Once Upon A Ballet” productions as NYTB’s Cinderella (with choreography by the late Antony Tudor specialist Donald Mahler) and Sleeping Beauty (which was choreographed by the internationally distinguished teacher James Sutton, whose condensed version refers to the 1890 Marius Petipa original without attempting to reproduce it).

Most of these works for children at NYTB are by Keith Michael, who now describes himself as principally an urban naturalist and avid birder, who leads tour groups through the wild nature of New York City. For part of his life, though, he has also identified as a dancer and choreographer, and for a quarter century was The Juilliard School’s manager of dance production. For NYTB, he has made Mother GOOSE!, The Alice-in-Wonderland Follies, a staging of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, and two iterations of The Nutcracker. (Michael has been staging productions of The Nutcracker from childhood; as he explained in an interview in The Juilliard Journal, in high school he put on a version using thirty-five marionettes and featuring a Christmas tree that grew.)

Mónica Lima and Jonathan Leonard
in Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo by Fadi Kheir

I attended Michael’s current Nutcracker at an NYTB performance in December, amid a raucously delighted audience of kids and their parents. The imagistic conceit of this amiable Art Déco spectacle — devised by the brilliant Gillian Bradshaw-Smith, a painter and designer in many genres, including scenic designs for ballets — is that a gleaming giant toy chest houses the work’s fantasy characters while also serving as the major scene-setting piece of furniture (and sometime nap cubicle) for the human characters.

The basic plot points and some of the ballet’s libretto (as George Balanchine presented it in his long-lived production based on his pre-WWI memories of having danced in the original at the Mariinsky Theater) are embodied in this compressed version.

NYTB fielded two casts this year. The names that follow are the performers I saw (each of whom is an NYTB Company dancer).

Sarah Stafford
in Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo by Richard Termine

During a Christmas party at the Stahlbaums’ home, teenaged Marie Stahlbaum (Sarah Stafford) — one of only two partygoers her own age — meets the other, the nephew of her Godfather Drosselmeyer (Nathan Rommel), a clockmaker in this version, who gives Marie a doll-sized nutcracker outfitted in a military uniform of the Napoleonic era. One of the servants breaks it (this version has no Fritz).

Marie falls asleep on the sofa holding the broken nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer creeps back in to fix the break. The room thereupon turns into a dream (presumably Marie’s) where a band of mice under the command of Queen Mouserinks (Kieran McBride) conduct a war with a regiment of mounted cavalry, led by a now-child-sized Nutcracker. Marie helps him, the soldiers win, the Nutcracker turns into a human Prince (danced by Charles Rosario, the same performer who danced the Nephew and the child-sized Nutcracker), and he and Marie walk through a blizzard of dancing Snowflakes (five danseuses) and Frost (two danseurs) and arrive at The Land of Sweets. There, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Mónica Lima) and The Sugar Plumlets arrange an entertainment for Marie and the Prince, consisting of danced divertissements to Tchaikovsky’s familiar Act II numbers. The Fairy and her Cavalier (Lima and Jonathan Leonard — the dancers who, at the party, portrayed Marie’s mother and father) dance a “Grand Pas de Deux,” and all the entertainers return for a joyous finale, followed by a full-cast bow.

Students from New York Theatre Ballet School
in the “Boules” divertissement
from Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo Courtesy of New York Theatre Ballet

NYTB students perform throughout. Four girls are cast early on as The Tick Tocks (who help Drosselmeyer keep the Stahlbaums’ clock ticking), and one is paired with a company dancer in “Chopsticks” (Tchaikovsky’s “Tea”).  Children also serve as The Mice and The Mounted Soldiers, as The Sugar Plumlets (who assist The Sugar Plum Fairy), as the quartet in “Boules” (to Balanchine’s “Hoop Dance” divertissement, here working with huge red balls), and as the Marzipan Sheep led by the Marzipan Shepherdess (Guilia Faria). This enchanting number — for me, the high point of the Land of Sweets — has the dainty sheep crouch down in a line and parade behind the Shepherdess with mincing steps in imagery reminiscent of a passage for the four Followers of the Revivalist in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring. (I asked Michael if he intended the reference; he said no but he’d go back to check the Graham.)

Providing contrasts in technical control, physical proportions, and strength, NYTB company members dancing the divertissements perform the solo “Lace” (McBride); the mysteries-of-the-Middle-East duet “Shadows” to Tchaikovsky’s “Coffee” dance (Rommel and Daisy Ye); one of the “Chopsticks” (Emely Léon Rivas); “Harlequin & Arlequina” (Charlotte Anub and Ethan Huffman); and “Waltz of the Flowers” (Anub, McBride, Ye).

The end result is a cause for celebration. However, those in the audience who believe that the identity of any Nutcracker ballet is first and foremost the Tchaikovsky score won’t be part of the celebration, as recorded excerpts are no substitutes for the real thing. However, that audience group is quite unlikely to be the people for whom the small, invariably impoverished yet outstandingly perseverant NYTB has made this production.

Charles Rosario in Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo by Fadi Kheir

This reflects an inevitable debate (which is common in connection with Nutcrackers produced by many ballet companies across the U.S.): If the music for a particular ballet is not affordable in a live, complete performance of it, should a ballet company then, morally speaking, abandon any production? Balanchine, for example, did not mount a Nutcracker until some twenty years after he arrived in America, and he chose never to mount a production of The Sleeping Beauty because even the glorious New York State Theater could not accommodate certain theatrical effects he deemed essential to the ballet’s identity. That is, when there wasn’t enough money to do it right, he did something else. But how many companies can field choreographers capable of choosing and staging affordable scores that are not by Tchaikovsky and of devising new stories that are sufficiently appealing to fill enough seats that the ticket income will support the company for the rest of the year?

Phrased slightly differently: Isn’t it corrupting of children’s aesthetic education to give them a reduced facsimile of the most important theatrical element?

The moral dilemma is not unresolvable. I remember as a small child not having access to the great ballets and operas and musicals in proper, full-length productions, instead listening over and over to fragments of their music, shoehorned onto 45 r.p.m. records. Fragments can prepare the sensibility, so that when one finally experiences the real examples in the best theatrical situations, one connects immediately. You don’t need to be a convict on death row, seeing for the first time, and under the pressure of it being the night before your execution, a clip of Astaire and Rogers dancing to a masterpiece from the American Songbook to know—as the convict, weeping, puts it the heartbreaking film “The Green Mile”—that the dancers are “angels.” You can be a small child, like my daughter once and her children now and the children around me at Florence Gould Hall, whose attention has just been caught by what dancers accomplish in the presence of good music-making, recorded or live.

New York Theatre Ballet in Keith Michael’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo Courtesy of New York Theatre Ballet

NYTB compresses and extracts in order to get a two- or three-hour classic into an hour, yet it doesn’t talk down to its audiences. And, under Byers’s tutelage, its youngest performers have the same responsibility as their older colleagues to respect what they do on stage. Although, at the performance of its Nutcracker I attended last year, several of NYTB’s ensemble dances for the adult characters suffered patches of chaos, the finale for everyone rose to the occasion and, in tandem with a hearty dose of recorded Tchaikovsky, inspired a feeling in this audience member that was something like a thrill.

The next ballet in New York Theatre Ballet’s “Once Upon A Ballet” series at Florence Gould Hall this year is the one-hour Cinderella, to recorded excerpts from the score by Serge Prokofiev, with choreography by Mahler, costumes by Nolan, and sets by Bradshaw-Smith. Six performances will be offered during Saturday and Sunday, March 2nd and 3rd.