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An Enthralling Nutcracker at New York Theatre Ballet

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New York Theatre Ballet dancers in Keith Michael's Nutcracker (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

It's been an exhausting Fall season of bi-coastal dance, full of thought-provoking ballet -- from the dazzling, messy new Tempest at American Ballet Theatre, to Crystal Pite's Emergence at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Nacho Duato's bewitching Por Vos Muero at Oregon Ballet Theatre, dark fairy tales at West Wave, Alonzo King's mesmerizing Writing Ground in San Francisco, and Unión Tanguera's erotic tango reverie at Cal Performances in Berkeley.

A jetlagged Ballet to the People now intends to curl up in her pyjamas in front of the fire, with an eggnog and a cozy Nutcracker.

In the bi-coastal spirit, however, she will board a plane one more time this year to catch one of her all-time favorite Nutcrackers: New York Theatre Ballet's captivating version by Keith Michael at the Florence Gould Hall in midtown Manhattan. The run comprises three performances daily - at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3:30 pm - on December 14, 15 and 22 only, so plan ahead.

Eschewing the cast of thousands, the grandeur of an opera house and of Christmas trees that inflate to skyscraper height, this streamlined retelling of the Nutcracker glories in the virtues of economy and wit. Situated, delightfully, on top of a mantelpiece and embellished in turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau style, real people and figurines mingle, somewhat surreally, against a protean set designed by Gillian Bradshaw-Smith. Though aimed principally at young children, the production's many clever details, and its crisp, unsentimental, high-octane storytelling have proven equally irresistible to more jaded adults. Sylvia Nolan, Resident Costume Designer of the Metropolitan Opera designed the stylish, sophisticated costumes that include polka-dotted mice, clockwork imps, and Chinese dancers wielding enormous chopsticks. A luminous owl flies above the audience. The hands of a ticking clock become swords in the dancers' hands. The magic stays with us well beyond the hour.

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New York Theatre Ballet dancers in Keith Michael's Nutcracker (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Serving up imaginative versions of the classics -- as well as newly commissioned work by acclaimed contemporary choreographers -- all at affordable ticket prices, this tiny, much-lauded company has steadfastly delighted audiences since its founding in 1978. New York Theatre Ballet has worked hard to introduce newcomers to ballet, targeting underserved markets -- not just in New York City, but also in smaller cities across America -- filling a niche that the larger, less nimble dance companies tend to ignore.

NYTB - Nutcracker Promo 2012 from New York Theatre Ballet on Vimeo.

Last year, critic Robert Gottlieb reported on NYTB's Nutcracker:

It's extraordinary the way [Michaels] achieves so much with so small an ensemble. What's more, the choreography is musical and inventive -- and fun. These are committed dancers, as much at home in this classic as they were in Tudor, Cunningham and Alston the last time I saw the company. The atmosphere is relaxed and rowdy, the experience a happy one. Don't forget this one at Nutcracker time next year!

The Nutcracker is part of NYTB's Once Upon a Ballet series. Other ballets in the series include:

The Alice-in-Wonderland Follies
January 25, 2014 at 1pm and January 26, 2014 at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3:30 pm

Cinderella
March 1-2, 2014 at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3:30 pm

Carnival of the Animals & Sleeping Beauty's Wedding
May 3, 2014 at 1pm, May 4 at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3:30 pm

Whether the company will survive past this season is anyone's guess, however. The tornado of urban renewal recently swept up the historic building that has housed NYTB's studios and offices for over 30 years; its sale by the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, and impending demolition and redevelopment will shortly force New York Theatre Ballet onto the streets. As with a growing number of arts organizations, NYTB is discovering that stratospheric real estate costs, and the coupling of developer greed with city government apathy, make New York City inhospitable to all but the behemoths whose donors possess exceptionally deep pockets. A shameful state of affairs in the performing arts capital of the world.

Knowing that this may well be the last season of Keith Michael's sparkling Nutcracker should at least galvanize you to score tickets today.

And while you're standing on line at the box office, tweet Mayor-elect de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio), who on the campaign trail spoke up for the struggling middle class and small businesses, and ask him what he intends to do to reverse the noxious trend that is wiping out small but legendary institutions like NYTB and New York City Opera.