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Urban Ballet Theater - Nutcracker in the Lower 2007

by Robert Abrams
November 29, 2007
Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement
Harry du Jur Playhouse
466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
212-598-0400
www.UrbanBalletTheater.org

Original Concept, Direction and Choreography by Daniel Catanach
Flamenco and Salsa Choreography by Yvonne Gutierrez
Hip Hop Choreography by Laurie Ann Gibson
Guest Choreographers: Shanelle Cummings, Randy Luna, Temur Mamisashcili, Roman Nunez, Ashvin "Vinny" Boodhun, Susan T. Seet and Jing Wong from the New York Chinese Cultural Center
The Urban Ballet Theater's production of Nutcracker in the Lower serves its purpose to showcase the accomplishments of the students of the Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement, while also giving the community of the Lower East Side of New York City a professional quality show. If you are nuts for Nutcrackers, Nutcracker in the Lower is worth a look (and you will enjoy it even if you are not a relative of one of the students in the show). And while the Lower East Side can be harder to get to than other parts of the city, it isn't that difficult: the Delancey-Essex Street subway station is within about 8 blocks of the theatre, and the Abrons Arts Center can call a car service for you after the show if needed.

Short synopsis: This production keeps the basic structure of The Nutcracker intact, but sets the action in the Lower East Side.

Here are a few reasons why I like this production.

Nasty people don't like to dance – In the opening party scene, Clara's self-absorbed and generally mean aunt refuses to social dance, even though everyone else is. We all knew there was something not quite right with people who are not as obsessed with dance as we are, and this production provides some evidence (insert self-deprecating smile here: I am related to several people who are obsessed with football, so I know we aren't going to get everyone to devote their life to dance). The real question is whether being nasty results in a disinterest in dance, or if a lack of dance causes some people to become nasty. To be honest, the production isn't consistent on this point, because later on the nasty aunt dances willingly, but I thought it could be an interesting concept to play with in future productions.

A comic moment – A kid has his head stuck in a basket of candy and is swung around upside down by the father.

A Lucille Ball moment – A guest arrives wearing the same dress as the nasty aunt. Both get upset.

Dancing spontaneously erupts at the party – The kids have infectious enthusiasm while dancing. Dancing is always supposed to spontaneously erupt at parties, so these are my kind of people.

Jay Barrett, Temple Carroll, and Nicolas Wright III as the Rat, Sweet Clara and Nutcracker full size dolls respectively brought professional level leaps and command of the stage. It should be noted, though, that Jay Barrett's costume read more like a fox than a rat to me.

The effects in Nutcracker in the Lower are workably impressive on a limited budget. The designers made effective use of cloth and lighting. You don't need a million dollars to create impact, and this production proved it.

There was much to like in the many dancers, but I especially like Anna Courter. She had nice lines. She finished her moves with a soft touch.

The Land of Snow ballet was a fairly long number, but I didn't notice because it was endlessly lovely. (I am a social dancer, so I expect choreography to be able to get the job done in about three minutes.) The Land of Snow ballet was a great way to end Act I.

Nutcracker in the Lower incorporates elements that are culturally relevant to the audience without breaking the style of the classic Nutcracker. For instance, the production uses Salsa, Flamenco, and Hip Hop, interwoven with traditional ballet. Culturally inflected ballet is also used alongside other styles, such as African dance. A number with Flamenco performed en pointe is another example. The diverse cast is quite capable of looking courtly. Frankly, you don't really notice the diverse cast: you just see quality dancers.

It is now time for the eggheaded moment in this review. It occurred to me that one could use the series of cultural dances in the Land of the Sweets section as a graphical organizer which could serve as a front end to a database of diverse dance opportunities. If I have time, I will build it and this will make more sense to those who aren't into graphical organizers.

The Taffy ballet number by Richard Smith, with the long cloth waving in the background, was a little reminiscent of sections of Revelations and UBT's own La Llorona.

The Mama Mocha number, where ten kids emerge from a "woman" on stilts wearing a huge skirt, was a definite crowd pleaser.

The Ballet Waltz/Sweets Ensemble number was also very engaging.

The best dance of the night, though, was the Grand Pas de Deux by Natalia Johnson and Nicholas Wright III. At one point, Ms. Johnson, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, thrusts her chest forward and flings her arms back like wings. It was a moment that shows off her talent. The rest of the number was its equal. Ms. Johnson threw herself into extensions with command and without quaver. She was ably assisted by Mr. Wright. The final drop was just as good as the rest of the number.

I wasn't particularly enamored of the ensemble finale. There were some nice, amusing bits, but I would find a way to use them earlier in the show. Frankly, I thought the last number was a little muddled. I wasn't sure what it was trying to accomplish. It could have had a clearer message. Given the superb strength and beauty of the Grand Pas de Deux (another case of just noticing great dancers, by the way), it would be very difficult to come up with anything that would look as good by comparison. My best suggestion is, after the Grand Pas de Deux ends, to move to a quick swirl of the whole cast that stylistically puts Clara to sleep, change the lighting and the backdrop, cue the final awakening and hug, and Curtain. The problem with the ending is partly a consequence of the show's purpose: being both a showcase of the children's talent and a professional show. The current ending emphasizes the former. While there is nothing wrong with this, I think that the show would serve to take the children's dancing seriously (which they are good enough to deserve) by emphasizing the latter. Ms. Johnson's and Mr. Wright's dancing is so strong that if you leave that as the audience's final memory, the audience will remember the entire show as high quality. The entire show is high quality, but people's perceptions are tricky, so the ending needs to be handled with extra care. The student showcase purpose might be better served if the current Finale were incorporated into an extended curtain call.

But enough about this show (other than to say that if you can still get tickets, go check it out). Let's talk about UBT's next show. In Nutcracker in the Lower, Clara's mother works as a maid for Clara's nasty aunt. In Act II, we discover that Clara's mother is also the Sugar Plum Fairy. So, what does the Sugar Plum Fairy do when it is not Christmas? Maybe she is a James Bond-like super-hero? It would make an interesting contrast: getting disrespect as a maid in one aspect of her life and adulation in the other. There are many possible answers. I have a feeling that the Urban Ballet Theater is uniquely qualified to find an entertaining answer to this question.
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