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Unlikely Steps To ‘The Nutcracker’

Unlikely Steps To ‘The Nutcracker’

Two of Gelsey Kirkland’s dancers — one from an Israeli moshav, the other from Alaska — have choreographed ballet lives for themselves.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

This season in New York City, several productions of “The Nutcracker” ballet are being staged around town, with angels, toy soldiers, Spanish dancers and fanciful figures bringing the classic story to life. One production features a muscular and lithe Israeli in the role of the prince and a poised young Jewish woman from Alaska as the female lead, Marie, the little girl who dreams herself into other kingdoms.

While Erez Ben-Zion Milatin and Michelle Katchert don’ dance together (they appear with other partners at different performances), they are good friends. Both 21, with inspiring posture, they sat down with The Jewish Week on their Sunday off from the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet to talk about their roles and their experience as dancers.

This is the second season of Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” and both Katcher and Milatin played leads last year as well. The company is the performing arm of The Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, founded in 2010. A legendary ballerina, Kirkland danced with the American Ballet Theater in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps most famously as “Clara” in telecasts of Baryshnikov’s 1977 “The Nutcracker.” She directs the academy with her husband Michael Chernov, and their mission is “to foster a rebirth of dramatic storytelling in ballet.”

Katcher, born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, wanted to dance since she was a young child. At age 7, she began studying ballet at the Anchorage Classical Ballet Academy and was serious from the very beginning, unlike other friends who just enjoyed skipping around in their tutus. She always enjoyed the intensity and focus of the classes, but it was really in performing that she found her true love of dance. Small for her age, she says that it was always easy to pick her out on stage because of her huge grin. At 15, she did “the impossible,” convincing her parents to let her move on her own to Washington, D.C., to continue her training at the Kirov Academy of Ballet.

Upon graduating as valedictorian, she was invited to study under Kirkland at her New York City academy. After one year in the school, Katcher was given a position in the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet Studio Company, and has performed many soloist and principal roles. She has enjoyed Kirkland’s one-on-one coaching, and says that her teacher’s focus on “finding and maintaining a character throughout every movement spoke to my soul.” To this day, the 7-year-old with great passion for ballet and a sense of perfection is still very much within her, stronger than ever.

Milatin’s path wasn’t nearly as direct. He grew up on Mishmar Ha Shiv’a, a moshav in central Israel named for seven soldiers killed in 1948. Looking back, he remembers having way too much energy and curiosity to sit still in school, and while he did well, he was always creating havoc in class. At 14, he began taking an aerial acrobatics class and enjoyed it; it was the first challenging physical thing he did. When his teacher suggested that he might improve his form in the air if he studied ballet, he was insulted by the idea. But his sister convinced him to try ballet along with her — actually, she tricked him into it — and he was hooked. But when he auditioned for the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, they were reluctant to take him as he was short, very muscular and lacked experience. He says that he was determined, and that his mother is a warrior on his behalf and they got him in. For his part, he gave it everything. He says that dance literally aligned him.

Two years later, Milatin moved to New York City to train more seriously in the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program. There, he spent three years in intense and painful training to make up for his lost time — and loved it. After that, he danced as a trainee with Boston Ballet and finally felt that he could just dance without worrying about catching up; he felt as though he had been dancing all of his life. He returned to New York after one year. This is now his second year with Gelsey Kirkland Ballet.

Milatin is wearing a small round medallion around his neck, a gift from his mother, engraved with the first line of the prayer Ana Bekoach, “We beg thee with the strength and greatness of thy right arm — Untangle our knotted fate.” For him, the meaning is that you have to have faith in whatever you do. He says that sometimes he’s so exhausted from practice, “but you just have to go on and do your best and you can be surprised at what your body will give you.”

One of his grandfathers came from a very religious family and moved to Israel on his own from Poland before the Shoah; he lost his faith when he learned that his entire family had been murdered. His other grandfather was an immigrant from Iraq who stayed religious. Milatin has always been a proud Jew, with his Jewishness and Israeliness interconnected. There are no days off from rehearsal, so on Yom Kippur he fasted at the studio, only drinking water so as not to collapse.

While Katcher was growing up in Alaska, her extended family was elsewhere. Her parents came from traditional Jewish families and they were involved with the small Anchorage Jewish community. Michelle gave up her religious studies to pursue dance, and when she was about 13, her family took a trip to Ukraine to visit the village her father’s family came from. For her, it was very powerful. Back in Anchorage, she had a “Dance Mitzvah,” when about 20 relatives traveled to come see her dance for the first time. “I felt celebrated,” she says, “although it wasn’t very traditional.” These days, she identifies with Jewish culture and peoplehood.

Describing Katcher’s style, Milatin says that she is very lyrical and fluid. “Michelle is someone who loves” — pausing for emphasis — “loves ballet.” And, he adds, she’s a perfectionist. He often turns to her for advice in rehearsals. Asked to describe himself, he says it’s difficult. He mentions integrity and individuality.

“I don’t want to look like anyone else. I take inspiration; I have role models. I like four dancers I can’t imagine the world without,” he says, naming Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Vladimir Vasiliev.

“We call him Little Baryshnikov,” Katcher jokes. “He’s a very powerful dancer, and the audience can really feel that. And he has a strong storytelling presence.

Milatin recalls that at first he wasn’t cast as the prince last year, and he kept on rehearsing the part anyway, asking the directors to reconsider. Finally they did and thanked him for not letting go.

“I believe in myself,” he says. “I’ve heard ‘no’ way too many times in my life. I only listen to myself.” Then he adds, “And my mom.” His parents will travel from Israel to watch him perform.

This Sunday, Milatin and his partner are also performing a pas de deux from “The Nutcracker” at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation gala, hosted by Itzhak Perlman. Milatin received one of the organization’s scholarships.

Katcher and Milatin both recognize that while they are young and likely to have many performing years left, they won’t be dancing for all of their lives. Milatin looks forward to a second act of running a high-level ballet school in Israel, uniting all of the arts under one roof.

“I believe that when you have something great to give, you have a responsibility. As an Israeli, I’d like to do something that almost no one in Israel has tried to do,” he says.

Katcher is still very much in love with ballet. “It’s hard to think about any time that I couldn’t do this every day, all day long. I also would like to find a way to pass on that love.’

Usually on Sundays they sleep in a bit. She tries to get out and walk the city and take in cultural events. He takes piano lessons from their director — “It’s good for the soul.”

Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is playing at the Schimmel Center at Pace University (3 Spruce St.) on Dec. 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 13 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 14 at 2 p.m.; Dec. 18-19 at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 20 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 21 at 2 p.m.

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