Ave. C dance studio presents ‘Nutcracker’ set in neighborhood

Sarah Macken and Afinatou Thiam in "The Shell-Shocked Nut," to be performed by the East Village Dance Studio (Photo by High Burckhardt)

Sarah Macken and Afinatou Thiam in “The Shell-Shocked Nut,” to be performed by the East Village Dance Studio (Photo by Hugh Burckhardt)

By Sabina Mollot

When Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on Manhattan’s East Side, a three-year-old dance studio on Avenue C was largely spared. The place wasn’t flooded like many of the other businesses along the avenue, but like every other place south of 39th Street, there was no power for a week. Heat wouldn’t return for several weeks. But even without it, Martha Tornay, artistic director at the East Village Dance Project, was determined to reopen, investing in space heaters and letting students who were aged 10 and older know they could return to class. (Most students at the East Village Dance Project are between the ages of 4 and 19, but Tornay said she didn’t want the littlest ones around the space heaters.)

Since most of the students live nearby in the East Village as well as Stuyvesant Town, it was upon their return that Tornay learned their superstorm-related stories. Some of the students had lost their apartments. Others were displaced from their schools or learning in the hallways. One, student, meanwhile, seemed happy about the blackout.

“One kid said how cool it was to be eating dinner by candlelight every night,” said Tornay.

But not everyone had been enjoying the effects of the storm and one of the teenagers asked Tornay if they could learn a number from “The Nutcracker,” saying it would cheer them up. So, Tornay had the students dance to the one of the songs in the score, “Waltz of the Flowers,” “and the room just lit up,” she said.

Naturally, the students went on to perform in a production of “The Nutcracker” that season. It was a 35-minute version, though, featuring 80 kids and was put on a few times just for parents. It was also modernized somewhat, with Tornay, who’s the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and has a sister who’s an Iraqi vet, changing one of the characters, the magical Drosselmeyer, to a female vet. Though Tchaikovsky’s score was used, the plot line changed and dealt with issues like post traumatic stress syndrome, since that’s what some of the students were experiencing as a result of Sandy.

Fast forward a year later, and the East Village Dance Studio, along with LaMama ETC and GOH Productions, are reviving the show, this time with even more modern updates, including music by a contemporary composer.

This time the show, called “The Shell-Shocked Nut,” is full-length at 70 minutes and will feature a cast of 25 students as well as 25 professionals including performers, choreographers and composers. It will also be performed for the public from January 3-5, 2014 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre.

Students from the East Village Dance Project in "The Shell-Shocked Nut" from left to right: Franky Kramer-John, Lydia Antoinette Niall, Safouane Chestnut and Piper Morrison (Photo by Hugh Burckhardt)

Students from the East Village Dance Project in “The Shell-Shocked Nut” from left to right: Franky Kramer-John, Lydia Antoinette Niall, Safouane Chestnut and Piper Morrison (Photo by Hugh Burckhardt)

In this version, the East Village is featured prominently in the storyline with the veteran character taking the

lead character, a young girl to a local community garden as well to see a show at LaMaMa theater. The characters travel via a hot air balloon from one act to another and end up meeting all kinds of local characters.

“It’s quite powerful,” said Tornay, adding that the neighborhood elements were also inspired by Sandy, since it was a time when people were simply forced to focus on their surroundings.

“You’re not just in work mode,” she said. “I really opened my eyes more to the community, so even though it was work, it was still about being a community project.”

The East Village Dance Project, which has been in business for 17 years, has been in its current studio space for three years between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Before that it didn’t have a permanent home, operating nomad-style. Having its own space has made a huge difference in what kind of productions it can take on, said Tornay.

Performances of “The Shell-Shocked Nut” will take place on Friday, January 3 at 7 p.m. and January 4 and 5 at 3 p.m. at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery. Tickets ($20, $15 seniors, students and children 12 and under) are available by calling (212) 475-7710 or by visiting lamama.org.