Performance: December 14, 2003
When I was 3 years old, around Christmas time, I saw a televised performance of the Nutcracker. I’m not sure I had seen any ballet before then, but that was all it took. I knew right then and there that I needed to be a ballerina. That’s what the Nutcracker does; that’s how powerful it is. I begged my parents to enroll me in a ballet class. Thankfully, they did, and I’ve been a lover of ballet, and the Nutcracker in particular, ever since. (To this day, when I hear even just a few chords of any part of Tchaikovsky’s score, I get excited). When I was 8 years old, I was cast as a party child in my first professional production of the Nutcracker, and I became part of a grand tradition, a rite of passage, really, that allows young ballet dancers to show off their budding talents, often for the first time, along side adult professional dancers. This initiation into the world of the Nutcracker is an incredibly important step in a young dancer’s life, and Francis Patrelle’s Yorkville Nutcracker carries on this tradition beautifully, showcasing many of New York’s finest young amateur ballet dancers as well as several of New York’s finest professional stars.
His production, performed at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on the Upper East Side, is a pure delight. It also offers a major variation on the traditional German story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Patrelle’s Yorkville Nutcracker is set in New York in 1895. The opening party takes place at Gracie Mansion, owned at the time by Hamlin and Jane Babcock. Jane Babcock was the daughter of Noah Wheaton, a major businessman who bought Gracie Mansion before it was sold to the city and eventually became the official residence of the mayor. This Christmas in 1895, the Babcocks have allowed the newly elected Mayor of Olde New York, William Strong, to give a party in the mansion in honor of his children, Mary Strong and Putnam Bradlee Strong. Mayor Strong has invited international dignitaries, ambassadors, and businessmen and their families-people who actually lived in New York in 1895-to his party. “We really did our research,” says Patrelle. Even Theodore Roosevelt (played by Patrelle himself), who was then president of the board of police commissioners, arrives dressed as a Teddy Bear. “I will gladly give up that role when I can find someone who is willing to do it,” says Patrelle. “I’ve had lots of fathers begging me to play the Teddy Bear-even offering money-but no one is willing to play Roosevelt after he takes off the bear suit during the rest of the party scene.”
Act I, does a wonderful job of showing off the young dancers. The party children, who come from Ballet Academy East, School of American Ballet, Studio Maestro, and the Ailey School, are adorable, and well rehearsed. The lead girl, Mary (not Clara, as she is named in Hoffmann’s story), from Ballet Academy East, is especially graceful and poised, as is the lead boy, Putnam Bradlee (not Fritz, as he is named in Hoffmann’s story) and the adult dancers. “Uncle” Noah Wheaton, who entertains the children at the party and presents Mary with the Nutcracker doll, is played with flourish by Donald Paradise, a teacher at Ballet Academy East. He is dramatic, mysterious, and fanciful.
The young Nutcracker, who is eventually revealed to be Mary’s brother, Putnam Bradlee, does a skillful job of battling the mice and leading his soldiers to save Mary in the beginning of her dreamland. It is a lovely touch that Patrelle makes Mary’s brother her protector. Patrelle adds similar touches throughout the ballet. For example, after Mary and Putnam Bradlee are whisked away on a sleigh to the Central Park skating pond (another variation on the German story), the lead skaters (the Snow King and Queen) resemble Mr. and Mrs. Babcock. What’s more, all the international dancers in the Land of the Sweets in Act II, which takes place in the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx (very appropriate since that’s where wealthy Manhattanites went to retreat back then), are wearing the same colors and patterns as their counterparts-the international dignitaries from the party scene in Act I. Most important of all, the Sugar Plum Fairy (which was performed by Jenifer Ringer from the New York City Ballet in the matinee on December 13th) and her Cavalier (performed by James Fayette of the New York City Ballet in that same performance) resemble Mary and Putnam Bradlee’s parents, the Strongs. Patrelle explains this by asking, “What little girl or boy doesn’t fantasize about their parents?” These nuances unite the events and people of Act I and Act II and make Mary’s dreamland even more relatable and understandable.
The dancers in the divertissements in Act II display exemplary talent and technique, from the Arabian and Russian dancers to the Spanish and Chinese performers-and one can’t overlook the charm of Mother Ginger and her children. One also can’t overlook the set designs and lighting. Gracie Mansion is replicated beautifully, and the Botanical Gardens is a winter wonderland. Most noteworthy is the Snow scene in Central Park, which was inspired by a photo that dates back to 1890 called “Skating in Central Park.” The photo shows the ice-skating pond in Central Park with a view of the newly built Dakota, which was New York’s first luxury apartment building. This setting is recreated lovingly in the ballet and the overall effect is magical.
The real treat, as always, is the beauty and grace of the Sugar Plum Fairy along with her Cavalier, and in this production, they were played by husband and wife New York City Ballet principal dancers. Seeing these masters of their craft perform in such an intimate setting inspires young and old dancers and probably anyone who has even the slightest interest in the arts. “I’ve been watching ballet for over 50 years,” said Patrelle after the Saturday matinee performance, “and I have never seen anything as beautiful as Jenifer and James together today.”
When Mary wakes up near the glowing Christmas tree at the end of the ballet, she is holding the Nutcracker and the flowers given to her in the Land of the Sweets. Was it a dream or not? For most children who see the Nutcracker, it is a dream indeed; a dream that inspires them to bring ballet into their lives, whether they learn to dance it or simply to appreciate it. Thanks to the Yorkville Nutcracker, and other productions every year, the tradition of the Nutcracker is alive and well.
December 11th – 14th 2003
At the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
New York, New York
Artistic Director/Choreography: Francis Patrelle
Managing Director: Robert Dorf
Rehearsal Director: Joni Petre-Scholz
Ballet Mistress: Leda Meredith
Assistant Ballet Mistress: Sabra Perry, Melissa Rodnon, Annemarie Waltz, Jill Schulster
Set Designer: Gillian Bradshaw-Smith
Resident Lighting Designer: David Grill
Resident Costume Designer: Rita B. Watson
Stage Manager: Patrice Thomas
Music: Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky
Principal Dancers: Sandra Brown, Donald Williams (courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem), Jenifer Ringer (courtesy of New York City Ballet), James Fayette (courtesy of New York City Ballet), Brian Chung, Frances Katzen, Ryan Kelly, Sabra Perry, Joni Petre-Scholz, Eric Ragan, Jill Schulster, Ilona Wall
Principal Character Dancers: Justin Allen, Matt Moore, Melissa Rodnon, Carmen Tagle, Rebecca Vargus, Annemarie Waltz, Donald Paradise
Children’s roles performed by students of Ballet Academy East, School of American Ballet, Studio Maestro, The Ailey School