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Nutcracker in the Lower: Taking Ballet to the Streets

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Photo credit: Urban Ballet Theater.

Editor’s note: Today we’re pleased to welcome New York writer Royal Young as a regular columnist on The Lo-Down. Royal contributes literary coverage to Interview Magazine and the new web site Holy Diver. Young recently completed “Fame Shark,” his memoir.  After six years living in exile (in Brooklyn), this Lower East Side native is back in his natural habitat, rediscovering the old neighborhood.

As a kid in the early ‘90s, I spent my time haunting the halls of Henry Street Settlement and the backstage at the Abrons Arts Center, chasing the creative energy that pulsed through those corridors.  Now that energy has exploded on the Abrons’ stage with the Urban Ballet Theatre presenting its 10th anniversary run of “Nutcracker in the Lower.”  A modern, Lower East Side take on the classic Christmas tale, this urban Nutcracker is bursting with life and longing.  Following Clara, a lonely young girl whose father has disappeared, leaving her only a collection of soldier style dolls, the colorful production whirls into fantasy when she falls asleep beneath a patchwork, glittering pine tree.

From the Grand Street subway station, complete with mutant, break-dancing rats, to the Williamsburg Bridge, looming ghostly in paper snow, the youthful dancers who populate Clara’s dream life are vibrant, representing the diverse residents of her neighborhood. Sultry Flamenco stompers and elegant African queens share the stage with wild Russian sword swingers and a feisty drag queen-esque Mama Fruita spewing children from under her gowns.  Clara follows a regal real-life Nutcracker through these surreal adventures, often embellishing Tchaikovsky’s original score with drums and hip hop beats, ballet taken to the streets.

Photo credit: Urban Ballet Theater.

The fervent, spiced up dancers whirl with the passion I recall having as a young Jewish kid growing up in a rough neighborhood where art was escape. It was a way to channel the frustration and pain I saw around me into beauty.  That same ruggedness, escapism and enchantment infuse this year’s “Nutcracker in the Lower.” Even if Clara never connects with her lost father, her rich dream life and soulful dances are able to sustain her love.  With many children taking the spotlight, the production is also a testament to the transformative power of art for youth.  The “trippy” wonderland, where magical worlds live between the artful sculptures of “found” garbage and the tenements become golden turrets where sugarplum fairies twirl.

“Nutcracker in the Lower” will be at the Abrons Arts Center through December 4th, with a rotating cast of young talent.

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