The only show more prevalent than Handel’s Messiah this time of year is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s exquisite The Nutcracker. There are so many competing productions in New York City, it can be difficult to choose the right one.
For The Yorkville Nutcracker from Dances Patrelle, standing out is exactly what they’re known for. The ballet performance plays Dec. 7-10 at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College on East 68t Street. The company is presenting the iconic show for the 22nd time.
This Nutcracker is a true New York affair. The sweeping plot and ornate costumes are set amidst the memorable sights of New York City, including Gracie Mansion, the Crystal Palace at the New York Botanical Garden and Central Park.
The Sugar Plum Fairy this time around will be Abi Stafford, and she will be joined by a host of young and professional dancers, all of them no doubt excited to bring Tchaikovsky and Frances Patrelle’s vision to life.
Recently, Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Patrelle, artistic director of Dances Patrelle and choreographer of The Yorkville Nutcracker, about the time-honored tradition. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.
What makes The Yorkville Nutcracker unique when compared to the other Nutcracker productions in the area?
When I was asked to create a Nutcracker by the director of The Kaye Playhouse, I wondered how I could create a viable production in a city that every year hosts George Balanchine’s beautiful Nutcracker at New York City Ballet. So, as a history buff, I began doing some research. I had always loved that historical photo of the ice skaters in Central Park, right in front of the brand-new Dakota Building. It led me to find out more about turn-of-the-century New York.
I did more major research and came up with the last mayor of Olde New York, before the city incorporation of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. He was Mayor Strong, and he had two children with names I loved, Mary and Putnam Bradlee. From the Strong family I began looking into other dignitaries and personalities of New York in 1895.
The city was a fascinating place then, just like now. Every single character in this ballet is a real person. For our second year we even managed to incorporate Theodore Roosevelt, who was a young police commissioner in those days.
Then I began researching locations. I wanted The Yorkville Nutcracker to be a living Christmas card to the city, so the children start at Gracie Mansion, go skating in Central Park and finally arrive at the Bronx Botanical Gardens — my kingdom of the sweets.
How much rehearsal time goes into preparing for the December performances?
We began rehearsing in September and have continued without pause since. The children in the production have logged hundreds of hours. The teens, hundreds more. And our ballet mistresses and staff have probably put in thousands. We want the production to be seamless and memorable, and we are blessed with a cast and crew that are willing to do the work necessary to make that happen.
What’s it like to choreograph young dancers and established dancers side by side?
I began my career, choreographically, at the Berkshire Ballet, with director Madeline Culpo, and then spent many years choreographing all over as a member of the Northeast Regional Ballet Association. I have been blessed with a long career of choreographing on all ages.
In my experience, it is best to teach choreography to teens just like you would to adults. We never ask the pros to dance down; we always ask the teens to dance up.
The original 12 young ladies I created The Yorkville Nutcracker on were a brilliant group. They were the best from Ballet Academy East, where I have been teaching ballet for many years, and where director Julia Dubno has been leading a magnificent ballet school. We also had a few young dancers from other schools, who were very well-trained, and who wanted to dance, but were beginning to transition toward academics and preparing for college. I loved that. I want smart dancers who love ballet. We have those same kinds of kids still today, and they make The Yorkville Nutcracker what it is.
What do you like most about the show from a choreographer’s standpoint?
Number one, I love the continuity of the storyline — from the meeting of the two principal children, Mary and Putnam Bradlee, to then following them from the mansion to the ice skating in the park, to the kingdom of the sweets. We work hard to make this Nutcracker flow, and we succeed.
Secondly, 22 years later, I still get goosebumps watching the snow scene. I made the scene to feature skaters in Central Park. We have a teen boy who dances beautifully amid 10 young ladies and a Snow King and Queen. It still excites me. It brings tears to my eyes every time I see it, and I feel honored by the way this latest crop of dancers brings life to what I hoped would be a gorgeous midnight skate!
Third, at the end of the snow, when we get the first reveal of the Kingdom of Sweets, it is just magic. The effect is so simple, but so effective.
When did you first realize dance would be a lifelong passion?
When I was growing up in Bucks County, [Pennsylvania,] there were two or three TV ballroom shows, with stars like Ricardo Mantalban and Caesar Romero. These were tango dancers that had come up from South America, and they were handsome, debonair and now Hollywood Stars. Watching at 7 or 8 years old, I could immediately mimic the dancers, even though I did not know what I was doing.
I got a young partner and started dancing all around Philly, eastern Pennsylvania, and even once in New York City. When I got older, and decided my act was no longer cute, I convinced my mother and father that since Fred Astaire had studied ballet, I wanted to try it as well.
I was allowed, and from the very first class, I realized that here was a technique. I could study and learn to perform the same way every time. I was hooked. I fell in love with ballet, and then later with modern and jazz. My only regret in my training is that I never had tap. But it’s on my bucket list, to learn tap.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Yorkville Nutracker will perform Dec. 7-10 at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City. Click here for more information and tickets.