Interview with Francis Patrelle about Dances Patrelle's The Yorkville Nutcracker
Dances Patrelle's The Yorkville Nutcracker, December 11th - 14th 2003
At the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
Artistic Director/Choreography: Francis Patrelle
Managing Director: Robert Dorf
Rehearsal Director: Joni Petre-Scholz
Ballet Mistress: Leda Meredith
Assistant Ballet Mistress: Sabra Perry, Melissa Rodnon, Annemarie Waltz, Jill Schulster
Set Designer: Gillian Bradshaw-Smith
Resident Lighting Designer: David Grill
Resident Costume Designer: Rita B. Watson
Stage Manager: Patrice Thomas
Music: Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky
Principal Dancers: Sandra Brown, Donald Williams (courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem), Jenifer Ringer (courtesy of New York City Ballet), James Fayette (courtesy of New York City Ballet), Brian Chung, Frances Katzen, Ryan Kelly, Sabra Perry, Joni Petre-Scholz, Eric Ragan, Jill Schulster, Ilona Wall
Principal Character Dancers: Justin Allen, Matt Moore, Melissa Rodnon, Carmen Tagle, Rebecca Vargus, Annemarie Waltz, Donald Paradise
Children's roles performed by students of Ballet Academy East, School of American Ballet, Studio Maestro, The Ailey School
Rachel Rabkin for ExploreDance.com
January 26, 2004
Rachel Rabkin: Why did you decide to start putting on a Nutcracker performance eight years ago?
Francis Patrelle: There were several reasons: I'd always dreamed of putting on a Nutcracker, for one. I also wanted to make Dances Patrelle a year-round company, so adding a Nutcracker at this time of year supplemented the rest of the work we do during the other seasons. Lastly, Julia Dubno's school, Ballet Academy East-where I teach-didn't offer many performing opportunities for the children, so the Yorkville Nutcracker has provided performing experience for students here. In essence, the Nutcracker has helped to institutionalize my company and it's given the kids here (and from other dance studios) more opportunities.
RR: How is your Nutcracker different from traditional Nutcracker performances based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story?
FP: Our setting makes our Nutcracker completely different than the traditional Nutcracker, which is set in Germany. Our Nutcracker is set in New York in 1895. In our story, everyone who appears in Act I actually lived in New York City then. The opening party takes place at Gracie Mansion, owned at the time by Hamlin and Jane Babcock (she was the daughter of Noah Wheaton, a major businessman who bought Gracie Mansion). Gracie Mansion was a private estate before it was sold to the city and eventually became the official residence of the mayor, starting with Fiorello La Guardia's third term. The Babcocks have allowed the newly elected Mayor of Olde New York, William Strong (the last Republican mayor before New York was consolidated), to give a Christmas party in the mansion in honor of his children, Mary Strong and Putnam Bradlee Strong. Mayor Strong has invited international dignitaries, ambassadors, and businessmen and their families-people who really lived in New York in 1895-to his party. Even Theodore Roosevelt, who was then president of the board of police commissioners, arrives dressed as a Teddy Bear. And I will gladly give up that role when I can find someone who is willing to do it. I've had lots of fathers begging me to play the Teddy Bear, but no one wants to play Roosevelt after he takes off the bear suit during the rest of the party scene.
We've taken some poetic license, but we really did our research, and all the dignitaries who are present at the party were international Consul Generals at that time in New York. AND, all the dignitaries are the people that Mary ultimately dreams about and sees dancing their national dances in the Land of the Sweets in Act II. Another change from the German version is that our Land of the Sweets is set in the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx because that's where the wealthy Manhattanites would retreat then. One nice touch is that the costumes of the dignitaries in Act I have the same colors and patterns as their counterparts in the Land of the Sweets.
Also, in our Nutcracker, "Uncle" Noah Wheaton is the one who presents Mary with the Nutcracker doll. And Mary's brother, Putnam Bradlee turns out to be the Nutcracker doll and Mary's protector, which is a major difference from the German version, in which Clara and Fritz (the Nutcracker) are not siblings. And then, Mary and her Nutcracker are taken on a sleigh to the pond in Central Park, where the lead skaters, the Snow King and Queen, look like Mr. and Mrs. Babcock. And actually, my inspiration for this Nutcracker was a photo that dates back to 1890 called "Skating in Central Park." It shows the ice-skating pond in Central Park with a view of the newly built Dakota, which was New York's first luxury apartment building. This Snow scene on the skating pond, which has gotten extraordinary reviews, is so pretty-the set design, the lighting, and the ballet, is just so pretty-it makes me cry when I watch it.
After Mary and the Nutcracker are then taken by sleigh to the Botanical Gardens, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier resemble Mary's mom and dad, the Strongs, because what little girl or boy doesn't fantasize about marrying their parents? When Mary wakes up in Act II, she has the Nutcracker and the flowers given to her in the Land of the Sweets, so she's not sure if she's experienced a dream or not.
RR: How do you cast your roles?
FP: For the children I base my casting decisions on three things: technical level; performing experience or lack thereof; and size-since we use the same costumes for the children's roles each year, I'm limited a bit in who I choose by who fits into which costumes.
For the professionals, I cast by suitability for what we need. This is a classical ballet and it takes a different kind of dancer than dramatic ballets. I base my choices on skill level and on each dancer's gifts from God, meaning their body type and their talent. I've been hiring Patrelle company members wherever possible, but auditions are open.
RR: How many months of rehearsals do you have?
FP: We have auditions in the middle to the end of September, and we begin rehearsing some children in the first week of October. Rehearsals go right up until our first performance in mid December.
RR: What are the biggest obstacles to putting on the Yorkville Nutcracker?
FP: Space and finances. Julio Dubno, the director of Ballet Academy East has been incredibly generous with space-and we've tried to accommodate every child who auditions-but we are still bursting at the seems. And the financial obstacles are continuous. Even though the performances sell out each year, the ticket price alone doesn't cover the cost of the production. We are constantly fundraising and we rely on the generosity of benefactors.
RR: What brings you the most joy in putting on the Yorkville Nutcracker?
FP: Seeing the young students grow up and become leading dancers in the production. This year, Ilona Wall, a former Ballet Academy East student, who is now a professional ballerina with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, has come back to perform as our Dew Drop. From the group of young dancers who were in the first Yorkville Nutcracker, several have come back to play leading roles as the Spanish, Chinese, and Russian dancers. To see these young dancers return home and blossom makes me most proud.
RR: Do you plan to continue with the Yorkville Nutcracker for the foreseeable future?
FP: It would be my dream that this particular production outlives me.