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New York Theatre Ballet: Adding Texture to the Art of Dance

By Emily Yewell Volin

The New York Theatre Ballet is on the map in a profound way.  For adults NYTB performs work by master choreographers including Frederick Ashton, Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille, José Limón, and Antony Tudor and the Ballet provides training that follows the Cecchetti syllabus.  In addition to its specialized adult season of producing chamber ballets by either famous or emerging choreographers, the NYTB produces full scale ballets created specifically for children ages 3-12.  “Ballet encompasses literature, music, design and dance” says NYTB Founder and Artist Director Diana Byer.  “We try to unplug today’s kids and open them up to how art can touch them.  We give young people the joy of entertainment and they become lifelong lovers of all art forms.  A lot of kids come back year after year and start to go to our grown up performances.  Parents go with their children and see how wonderful it is”.

Diana Byer. By Yoshi Ono

Diana Byer’s passion for quality dance and community is infectious. “Our mission is to be in the community.  When NYTB tours with our children’s shows, I go into the area’s ballet schools to teach and I bring kids into the theater where they can take company class with the NYTB dancers.  I speak with parents of the children and make myself available to discuss college and summer intensive programs”. Byer even offers a session playfully entitled ‘Help, My Child Wants to Be A Dancer’.

The NYTB has completely reinvented its Nutcracker for the 2011-2012 season.  This year the company is performing choreographer Keith Michael’s Art Nouveau rendition of the classic Nutcracker and calling it Nouveau Nutcracker .  NYTB had been performing Keith Michael’s original rendition of the famous ballet for 26 years and the impetus for recreation came from necessity.  Byers said, “I loved the original production, however, [last season] the set was 26 years old and held together with gaffer tape.  We knew we had to redo the costumes going into this season and we decided we might as well freshen up everything.” 

Choreographer Keith Michael shares Diana’s passion for community and the wellness of youth.  His Nouveau Nutcracker centers around a mantel clock that serves as a metaphor for ‘magic that can happen between everyday ticks of time’.  DI asked Byers what Michael’s intention was with this metaphor. Byers quoted Michael as eloquently stating, “time in the theater should be timeless, it should be an experience that can happen nowhere else, one that you can only get in that place and that time.  This, unfortunately, is an unfamiliar concept of experience.  Even a quaint one, in the current handheld device saturated era.  Our devices have the capability to photograph and video everything for later documentation and our thumbs can document and send what we think we are experiencing.  But, each one of these processes of documentation actually takes us away from having the experiences we are documenting.  Dance can only happen in real time and real space.  Photos and videos are only shadows of the real experience.  This Nutcracker ballet is a fantasy tale, a dream story outside the confines of time itself.  The ballet is Marie’s story.  She transforms the real people in her life to the creations of her fantasy life.  One hopes that a thrilling real life, real time experience in the theater can reconnect older audiences and introduce younger audiences to the joys of an unplugged, memorable now”. 

Photo by Richard Termine

Nouveau Nutcracker’s innovative reinterpretations of the classic tale include an exciting adaptation of the work’s divertissements.  Byers adds, “Keith is rather extraordinary in that he has knowledge of many different dance styles and a terrific imagination.  He’s gone beyond classical dancing and incorporated theatrical elements of surprise.  There are gigantic chopsticks and shadow puppets.  He’s added elements that create surprises and keep you on the edge of your seat”.  And, Marie is a more mature version of her original character.  According to Keith Michael, “My new Marie is a Juliet aged young woman and a debutante with romantic fantasies.  Everyone needs encouragement to activate their personal fantasy life, not only girls and boys, but most adults as well.  There is currently a debilitating social expectation to have the same experiences as one’s peers; to view the same entertainments, listen to the same music, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes and play with the same toys with the same packaged and marketed fantasies of how to play and who to imagine while playing.  The Nouveau Nutcracker’s Marie imagines a story all her own and is richer for it.”

NYTB delivers on its mission to serve community and youth.  LIFT, its community services program, provides tuition-free ballet classes and other vital help for at-risk and homeless children.  Byers explains, “It’s been proven that the arts change learning abilities in school”, and program alumni demonstrate that power.  Among many success stories two stand out to Byers.  One is a 7 year old boy who has since grown into a principal dancer with NYTB, has danced in child roles for Kirov productions and was honored as a finalist in the Rudolf Nureyev International Ballet Competition.  The second is a girl brought up in foster care who will soon graduate from SUNY after spending a semester working with orphans in Thailand. 

In this time of economic instability, how can the dance community help keep small companies doing big work from falling through the cracks?  Byers shared “NYTB does the kind of touring that large companies can not do.  It’s irresponsible to let companies with longevity disappear.  We add texture within the arts and we can bring these full scale first rate live ballets to communities without great facility or great funding”.  Byers invites people interested in helping NYTB to contact her.  “We’re not for profit so contributions are completely tax deductible.  And, right now we’re looking to broaden our base and build our board. If you’re a person who likes to be involved in the nitty-gritty details of a dance organization, we’re the company for you!”

To learn more, purchase concert tickets, and/or book the New York Theatre Ballet for your community visit www.nytb.org

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