How This Director Brings Extra Energy to Ballet Productions

Gabriel Chajnik infuses the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater's repertoire with rock and theatrical elements.

On December 20–22, see the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater’s newest production, The Nutcracker Rocks. (Photo courtesy of Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater)

An excited Gabriel Chajnik scampers around the 500-seat Vogel Auditorium in Deal Park. The occasion: a rehearsal for a new production of Alice in Wonderland. Chajnik snaps his fingers for the orchestra, demonstrating tempo, and extends his arms wide, urging on his Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater dancers to create more drama.

It’s no surprise that founding director Chajnik, 50, brings such energy to a rehearsal. 

“My mother sent me to dance [class] when I was nine because I was super hyperactive,” says Chajnik. He played soccer, but, he says, “I was still jumping off the walls.”

Chajnik’s energy impressed Jess Levy, founding CEO of the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, and Elise Feldman, board president of the ballet theater. They brought on Chajnik, in part, to help provide dance education in Monmouth County. In preparation for the ballet theater’s productions, student performers attend intensive programs with professional mentors. Students and professionals share the stage for all performances.

“For the aspiring dancers in the area to have a point of orientation—a professional company that is invested here—that’s the way I was inspired as a kid,” says Chajnik. Growing up in Argentina, Chajnik attended the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires for ballet instruction. At 20, he came to the United States to audition for the Juilliard School. 

“I could barely speak any English,” he says. He ended up attending Juilliard on a full scholarship.  

Before joining Axelrod, Chajnik created G*D, a multimedia dance play and educational program based on a relative’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. About 7,500 New Jersey students and teachers experienced the progam.

Chajnik describes his Axelrod productions as ballet plays, because they incorporate theatrical elements.

The Jungle Book (Courtesy of Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater)

For a previous Axelrod production of The Jungle Book, he collaborated with a master of Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance form, and placed a percussionist onstage to play tabla, an Indian drum. A children’s chorus and spoken word were integrated into Alice in Wonderland, which debuted in August. All productions feature a live orchestra conducted by Jason Tramm. 

The company’s next production, The Nutcracker Rocks, will run December 20–22. It’s Chajnik’s most ambitious creation yet for the company, which launched in 2018. Tickets range from $26–$54.

In this contemporary story, Clara, the main character, does not want to attend her parents’ holiday party. During the celebration, Uncle Drosselmeyer gives Clara an electric guitar with a nutcracker stand. 

To energize the classic Christmas tale, Chajnik is bringing in Alex Levine and Alex Rosamilia of the New Brunswick-based band the Gaslight Anthem to compose and add rock elements in Tchaikovsky’s score. Student dancers are working with Dylan Pearce, a former assistant choreographer for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Seniors at Howell High School will do acrobatics on hanging silks during a snow scene.

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“This Nutcracker is going to have hip-hop, jazz, ballet, contemporary dance,” says Chajnik. “It’s going to be a melting pot of styles.” Chajnik and Reuben Jackson, director of Red Bank Regional High School’s theater department, wrote the libretto. 

Chajnik, who moved to Ocean Grove with his husband two years ago, wanted to highlight the Jersey Shore in the tale as well. 

Clara will travel to a candy store in Seaside Heights rather than the Land of the Sweets. Local photographers will incorporate Shore landmarks into digital scenery.

Minimalism is not in Chajnik’s playbook. “‘Gabriel, you don’t do anything small,’” Chajnik says his friend, Michael Trusnovec, formerly of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, told him after seeing Alice in Wonderland. “I’m always looking for different ways to express. I think that being loud and opening the space might not be a bad thing.”

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