That’s why when I learned that the Restoration Youth Arts Academy, in conjunction with the Classical Contemporary Ballet Theatre, would be performing “The Ebony Nutcracker,” I had to grab my godchildren, and go.
The production, which ran two shows this past Sunday at the Teunis G. Bergen Elementary School, was a part of the Choreoquest program, a project of Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s Center for Arts and Culture, which shares resources with and provides residencies for emerging and veteran choreographers and dance companies.
In just seven short weeks, the show’s choreographer and artistic director, James Atkinson, pulled together one of the most heart-warming renditions of the ballet I have seen yet.
“They run the Nutcracker at BAM, and it’s great,” said Atkinson who, aside from working as the show's artistic director, also danced as the Snow King and Snow Prince. “But most of the dancers in that production come from Manhattan and the school at the Kennedy Center.
“I pushed for this to happen because I felt the children in our community deserved the same opportunity to see themselves in the Nutcracker and be a part of such a holiday classic. I wanted to show them that ballet can be just as much fun as any other art form. They got a chance to work hard with professional dancers who reflect them, so they saw that, yes, they can be amazing and be African.”
Like the original story, Atkinson’s version of this classical ballet was set in the late 1800s, based on the “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” by E.T.A. Hoffman in which a young girl dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King.
However, Atkinson brings a contemporary twist to the story of Herr and Frau Silberhaus and their children celebrating Christmas Eve. In this rendition, they are the “Franklins,” still celebrating the excitement of the holidays, with some minor nip-and-tucks to the story line that take away none of the joy.
The show’s storyline, replete with dancing toys, fighting mice, gingerbread soldiers, snow fairies and tutus, always was (and admittedly, still is), a bit confusing to me. But none of that really ever mattered, because the music and the set designs became a fantastic voyage, a head trip of the imagination to a place where candy canes and toys danced for your pleasure.
“During rehearsal, I told the kids, ‘Allow yourself to believe you’re in fairy tale; I even told them to bring dolls to rehearsal,” said Atkinson. “It was a challenge because in 2011 with all of this technology, we forget how fast-paced children have become; it’s harder now to get them to slow down and imagine on their own.”
The story’s protagonist, the young Clara Franklin, was danced beautifully by a very talented, 17-year-old, Thea Grier, whose impressively delicate and nuanced demeanor and facial expressions showed 100 percent committmeny to her part. Shaza Bailey who played Clara’s brother Fritz Franklin, also was exceptional.
Other dancers who played the Franklin Family members, the Snow Queen, the Ballerina Doll and the Snow Princesses clearly were dance veterans and served as the production’s critical underpinning, making it a true classical ballet, while the remaining 20 or so dancers brought impactful detail that rounded out the story, making it all the more entertaining and fun to watch.
The show had one setback, and that was its stage, which, in an elementary school auditorium, allowed enough room for about four big leaps from left to right before you were out of audience view.
But aside from that, I loved it. Most important, my godchildren got a chance to see the Nutcracker for the very first time, performed by people they see in their community every day. They also got a chance to hear Tchaikovsky in a context other than a Christmas car commercial.
“A lot of the parents felt the show was magnificent,” said Atkinson. “It was a lot of hard work, but the students had a phenomenal time; it was a learning and growing experience for all of them.
“Hopefully we can make this happen again in the future… Next year, I’d like be able to develop it and raise enough funds so that we can take it to bigger stage and make it available to the entire population of Brooklyn.”