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Robert Abrams
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Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement

Urban Ballet Theater - Nutcracker in the Lower

by Robert Abrams
December 3, 2005
Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement
Harry du Jur Playhouse
466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002

Urban Ballet Theatre - Nutcracker in the Lower

presented at
The Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement
466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002

Robert Abrams
December 3, 2005

Nutcracker in the Lower, presented by the Urban Ballet Theater, is a multicultural take on the classic Nutcracker tale. This Nutcracker is set in a housing project, where little Clara lives, and in Clara's Aunt's house, where Clara's mother works as a maid. There is Salsa dancing at the opening Christmas party, Hip Hop rats with evil looking oil stains that fight toy soldiers, a more classical Land of Snow section, and some adaptations in the Land of the Sweets, including an African dance number.

Overall I thought the production was done well. This is a show intended to showcase the Abrons Arts Center's student dancers, from small kids to pre-professionals. The students did an admirable job.

I liked Jessica Perez as the rich aunt. She had good comic posture. The way she kept changing into ever gaudier dresses to try and upstage everyone else was very funny.

I thought the opening scene could have used some dialogue. I know it is a ballet, and ballets are not supposed to have dialogue, but if you are going to mess with tradition anyway, there is no reason not to break other conventions while you are at it. The broad strokes characterizations were clear, but some of the detail that was supposed to be conveyed by the pantomime was not. I think it is worth creating some dialogue specific to the setting of Nutcracker in the Lower and trying it out in a workshop.

As mentioned above, this Nutcracker tried to update the classic by having Salsa dancing at the party. The Salseros danced to the Nutcracker's original classical music. It was a good idea, and the Salsa choreography tried to hit the moments of emphasis within the classical music, but to my eye it just didn't work. Most of the time the dancers looked like they were off the rhythm. Their Salsa dancing itself was just fine. I have seen them before, so I know that the Abrons Salsa dancers can generate some excitement with Salsa. I think it would make more sense to have someone say, "Enough of this classical music, let's dance Salsa!", have Salsa music come on, do the Salsa number and then find a way to get back to the classical score. Perhaps by having someone say "A Quadrille can be cool too!" The kids do in fact do a "Cotillion"/vintage type dance. They look good doing it. The Aunt tries to upstage everyone here by shaking her thing, which, as anyone who knows anything about vintage dances, is just not done.

Other than the Salsa number, the choreography hit the emphasis points in the music.

The dancers showed off varied styles of movement as appropriate to their character. The wolf was smooth. The ballerina doll was staccato en pointe. The cavalier leaped and spun. The rats were skittery.

In another comic bit, the leader of the rats, a really big ugly rat, turns out to the Aunt. Fortunately she is defeated when Clara swipes her with her ballet shoe.

In the next scene, the Land of Snow, the dancers were graceful, lyrical, elegant and had nice lines. They sailed through the air. The men confidently carried the women. They did this cool move where the man swings the woman around his waist and that I think could be adapted to Swing. This was ballet that was full of energy.

The second act began with more cross-cultural references: a ballerina holding aloft an Native American dreamcatcher while she performed extended pointe work across the stage.

Clara's father and mother appeared dressed in purple. Clara ran to them and danced with them. There was a Flamenco number with castanets that was very poised. The Flamenco dancers were followed by Chinese fans and long red ribbons. Possibly the best work of the night, a chorus of six women performed African dance barefoot with undulating bodies while Naimah Willoughby led them regally in African inspired ballet. Chloe Reynolds was nicely still during her pointe holds as the Taffy Swirl. The Russian Candy Canes rotated their feet under themselves with energy. The marionettes did a little Samba and were appropriately loose limbed.

In the elegant Waltz with Flowers, the ballerinas had good extension on their kicks, nice flutter feet, and excellent multiple spins en pointe. Nicholas Wright III was light on his feet.

I especially liked Natalia Johnson as Clara's Mother. She had a nice port de bra. She was very confident and had well matched partnering with Clara's Father, Andres Gonzalez, who stepped in at the last minute to replace Danny Tidwell who was injured. She never lost her smile. She was able to spin en pointe for a long time.

Liana Nibungco was adorable as Clara. She had very nicely pointed feet.

Nutcracker in the Lower is a must see if you know someone in the cast. Even if you don't know someone in the cast, it is worth seeing. It contains much fine dancing. The African dance number deserves to be tested before a larger audience.

Urban Ballet Theater's Nutcracker in the Lower - Grand Pas De Deux - Natalia Johnson and Andres Gonzalez
Photo courtesy of GeoffreyTischman

Urban Ballet Theater's Nutcracker in the Lower - The Cast
Photo courtesy of GeoffreyTischman

Urban Ballet Theater's Nutcracker in the Lower - Natalia Johnson
Photo courtesy of GeoffreyTischman

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