By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Since moving to a new location at St. Mark’s Church on-the-Bowery last year after more than three decades in its old space, New York Theatre Ballet has been trying to come up with new ways to get involved with the community. To that end, the school has recently started offering pre-ballet classes for children as young as three and four years old, as well as expanding its adult program for women of all ages.
However, while NYTB founder and artistic director Diana Byer said the adult classes are held in a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who “has never put on ballet slippers,” the younger students are held to a much loftier standard.
“It’s very professional,” she said. “It’s not a play date and it involves serious training. We teach them that their behavior affects everything around them and we have real expectations for the students.”
The company’s interest in getting young children involved in dance and theater is evidenced through the classes that start at such a young age but also through the performances that are tailored specifically to kids.
Byer said that the company has Muppet creator Jim Henson, and to some extent composer Leonard Bernstein, to thank for its popular ballets for children. In the 1980s, Byer met Henson through Kermit Love, a designer and builder for the Muppets who was also on the board for NYTB.
“Leonard Bernstein started doing one hour concerts for families at the New York Philharmonic,” Byer explained. “So Jim (Henson) and I were talking once and he was saying, ‘how can we get inner city kids interested in theater?’ It all started from there.”
Byer emphasized that the ballets performed for family audiences, which include The Nutcracker, Cinderella and others, are not just abridged versions of the original works but are specifically arranged with the attention span of young children in mind.
“We’re doing real classical ballet with big production value for child’s attention span,” she said.
And the tactic seems to work.
“Getting these kids, some of them in diapers, to sit still for this performance, you think it’s going to be horrible but the kids are enthralled,” said Arlene Harrison, president of the Gramercy Park Block Association, which has been involved with the company through the Project LIFT program.
Project LIFT is a community service program run by the company that offers scholarships to at-risk and underserved children for the ballet school. It offers a year-round study program and based on auditions held in shelters and other locations, and about 30 children are enrolled every year with partial or full scholarship assistance.
“It’s specifically for family audiences. The ballets for children are legends and visionaries,” Harrison added.
The series is known as Once Upon A Ballet and holds four different performances per year. “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” are the mainstays but some of the other ballets include The Alice-in-Wonderland Follies and Sleeping Beauty. Short study guides about the shows are available on the website to help the children participate in the show and get more involved in the stories and the performances themselves. Byer herself participates at the beginning of the shows to help the young audience engage with the performance.
“Before every show I come on stage and I pick one job where the person helps bring the performance alive,” she said. “It introduces the children to other jobs in the theater, like pointing out the spike tape that’s there so the dancers know where to go and sets go in the right place. It’s child oriented but parents really like it too.”
With the holidays on the horizon, the company is preparing for its family version of “The Nutcracker,” which is especially popular among preschoolers and their families, recommended for children ages two and older.
“We do it in an intimate way in a small theater so they feel like they’re a part of it,” Byer said. “It’s a very intimate and personal experience and in a way that’s what the school is as well. We teach to the child and not the group.”
Byer noted that children involved in the school also perform special roles, especially in “The Nutcracker,” which has a number of roles for children that are often filled by NYTB students.
Performances for “The Nutcracker” this year are from December 11 to 13 at Florence Gould Hall. The pre-ballet classes at the school for kids as young as 3 officially started in September but children are admitted on a rolling basis as long as there is space in the class. Adult ballet classes began at the end of the summer and pilates classes for adults have also begun at the school since the beginning of this month. For more information about enrollment or tickets to the performances, visit the website.