The Norwalk Metropolitan Youth Ballet Takes The Nutcracker to New Heights

right: NMYB’s creative director Adam Holms with husband and business administrator Max Riesen


Photography by Andrea Carson | Illustration by Venera Alexandrova

STEP SOU-SOUS! LEFT TENDU!

Thirty two young ballerinas are lined up in three rows for auditions of Norwalk Metropolitan’s Youth Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker—each one prettier than the next. Not just in looks. They carry a focus, a talent and a determination that rivals an Olympian on the world stage.

Adam Holms, the owner and artistic director of NMYB, is weaving through the rows handing out directives at a speed unintelligible to an untrained ear.

Open-plié-cross-open-plié-side bend-right arm over-tourne en dedans pirouette-jump to fourth-jump to second-jump to fourth-pirouette.

Holms doesn’t have the strict and authoritarian nature of a stereotypical artistic director. His nails are painted a glittering shade of forest green and he’s wearing Nutcracker socks and a Nutcracker blazer that sparkles as he walks—a stark contrast to the muted leotards that line the rows.

right: NMYB dancers Sanaa Butani and Mio Nomoto rehearse at the barre.

“Want to see how much I love the Nutcracker?” he asks. He lifts the sleeve of the blazer to reveal a tattoo of a nutcracker—the holiday figurine drawn permanently on his forearm.

“If I need kids to buy into my program, I need to sell it to them,” says Holms. “The whole reason these kids love The Nutcracker is because I love The Nutcracker. That᾽s why I have a sparkly blazer and a tattoo.”

Holms recognizes there are no shortcuts to ballet—it requires consistent, hard work but “if I can make it more accessible with pop music and the way I dress, I’m going to do it,” he says.

The traditional ballet class music begins and, without hesitation, the girls execute the long list of directives Holms just gave them.

The execution was surprising. There was steadiness where there should have been shaking, and stoicism where there should be grimacing.

The only visible indications of their effort was the damp hairs curling along the napes of their necks.

Once the girls leave the room, they become completely different—animated, giggling and dancing with girls who seemingly have become their closest friends.

Holms’ husband and NMYB’s administrator, Max Riesen, settles them down when the noise level gets out of hand. Riesen is tall and instantly likable. He’s wearing green and white Nikes, a backwards cap, and has an edge that almost looks out of place outside of the City.

Riesen plays a major role in the front-of-house culture of the studio. “This is a nurturing space and everyone who works here is fundamentally interested in the growth of these kids,” he says.

left: Dancers spend their weekends rehearsing for The Nutcracker. Here, Isabella Ferrizz, Serra Nalbantoglu and Sophia Reeves. right: Dancers Sophia Reeves, Mio Nomoto, Ava Cordella, Isabella Ferrizz, Sanaa Butani and Serra Nalbantoglu.

Riesen and Holms know each and every kid that walks into the studio. Riesen is adamant about having no option for online registration. Each kid sits down with Holms and Riesen in person and talks through their goals—whether that’s to go en pointe, step up training for college applications or learn a new discipline for fun.

Once they are registered, each student gets a green folder with a custom protocol of the classes Holms recommends for them, and invitations to programs and even scholarships if they need them. While NMYB is not a nonprofit, it does have a nonprofit umbrella that accepts donations to help underserved students cover tuition.

“My students do not just learn steps and movements but are introduced to history, culture, art, music and language while inadvertently learning self-reliance, appreciation for tradition, time management, self esteem, self expression and personal responsibility,” says Holms.

What’s different about Holms, though, is that while he respects the history of ballet itself, he recreates each production from scratch to celebrate the students he has. “This is an art for everyone—every color and shape and size. That means respecting the canons but changing the culture. It’s why I dress kind of funny and have them dance ballet to hip hop or Dolly Parton…to disarm them.”

right: Dancer Martina Spremulli will perform as this year’s Clara.
left: Costumes and props ready for showtime

This sentiment came alive towards the end of the group’s audition. After a few segments of what you’d expect a traditional ballet audition to look and sound like, Holms threw out another spew of directives, but once the music came on, it was a clean version of hip hop track, Edamame.

The students lit up when they recognized the beat, smiling as they performed to the new track.

“When I see the kids are focused and concentrate too much on being perfect, I change up the energy in the room. I want them to feel comfortable in that moment,” Holms says.

NMYB has sister schools both in Ecuador and Costa Rica, and in the spirit of inclusion, the school sends down three girls for their production of Coppélia, while three come up to Connecticut for their production of The Nutcracker.

left: Isaac Bailey as The Nutcracker Prince. right: Emma Tatum and Mio Nomoto
left: Emma Tatum as the Dew Drop Fairy with Holms, Mio Nomoto as the Rat Queen and Martina Spremulli as Clara. right: Theodore Adamson as Fritz with Spremulli as Clara

The students refer to Holms only as Mr. Adam. “It’s a thing of respect,” he says. “My delivery may come off cavalier but it hooks children so I can make them attentive and teach them the rigors.”

Riesen adds “for us to be committed to you, you need to be committed to us.”

“Yes, and there’s no discussing casting or costume choice,” says Holms. “This is my world and you’re part of it because you want to learn.”

And there’s a reason for this: Holms says, “It’s not normal for a child to be devastated over casting levels. It’s okay to be disappointed—disappointment is a moment. But devastation isn’t. Not every kid is going to have the same path.”

He adds “I taught for the American Ballet Theatre but I never danced for them. I wasn’t devastated. I was thankful and honored to be in that orbit.”

right: Lily Strouse in NMYB’s 2019 version of The Nutcracker.

“I think it’s important for parents to realize that no child has feelings that are 100 percent original,” he continues. “You need to trust the mentors you put into children’s lives. Adults make difficult choices for them. Our job is to say this is why we made that choice. I often remind parents, this is their first experience dealing with an 8 year old child of their own. This is my 22nd year of working with 8 year olds. It’s a difficult thing but parents need to de-center themselves from emotions and think about the larger picture.”

He brings the discussion back to this year’s production of The Nutcracker and the costumes for this year’s production. “I know how much joy it brings to get a new costume, so they are an investment we make not only because they tell the story so differently, but because it elevates a kid’s experience.” And the costumes are elaborate, designed to make each kid feel like a star.

Speaking of stars, unlike many other ballet productions, Holms and Riesen do not bring principal dancers for the performances.

“You have very few opportunities to wear a tiara,” Holms says. “I’m not going to waste that on a ballerina who always has that spotlight. Plus, it’s vital to know that I believe in their talent and their ability to play the Sugar Plum.”

Kyra Sayegh, Annabelle Gorski and Clare Scozzafava prepare to take the stage for NMYB’s 2019 Nutcracker.

The NMYB’s version of The Nutcracker is truly unique to the studio and its student class. The way Holms tells the story is 100 percent original, and he is quite deliberate in his use of masks and costumes to tell the story in a way that is unique even to someone who has seen The Nutcracker a hundred times. “Plus, there’s something really joyous about seeing a production done all by children, and no adults,” he says.

At each end of each production, Holms gives each child a thank you card, “from a lefty with bad handwriting.”

It’s partially to tell them how proud he is of them, but it’s also to teach those kids the value of a handwritten thank you card. To Holms, it’s a lesson more important than learning ballet steps.

In their ten years since opening the studio, maybe five kids become professional dancers, “…but every one of them keeps in contact,” Holms says. “We don’t have robust personal families of our own so these families have become our adopted families,” he finishes as his eyes well up.

While NMYB operates as a for-profit entity, it maintains a partnership with the non-profit umbrella corporation, Fractured Atlas. Under this partnership, Fractured Atlas accepts tax-deductible donations on behalf of NMYB, playing a pivotal role in supporting the studio’s initiatives, including their robust need-based scholarship program, covering expenses associated with bringing in world-class choreographers and master teachers, and ultimately enhancing NMYB’s ability to present Fairfield County’s most esteemed all-child dance productions. To contribute, contact info@nmyb.org.

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