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A Crack in Tradition

Donald Byrd's 'Harlem Nutcracker' is about as far from sugarplums as you can get. Are you ready to swing?

December 22, 1996|Jennifer Fisher | Dance writer and critic Jennifer Fisher is finishing her dissertation on the community role played by local American "Nutcracker" productions

FAIRFAX, Va. — There is something unusual about the pre-performance talk for the brand-new "Nutcracker" that has just arrived at the Performing Arts Center of George Mason University in this affluent, mostly white suburb of Washington. New York-based choreographer Donald Byrd is not discussing his vision of sugarplums but, instead, the aftereffects of the civil rights movement and the appropriation of the notion of "family values" by the Christian right.

Later, the 47-year-old Byrd will say he was exhausted during his talk--from getting "The Harlem Nutcracker" on the road (it arrives at the Wiltern Theatre for performances Friday through next Sunday).

If so, the few hundred audience members--most of whom are black--haven't noticed. Dressed in a midnight-blue shirt and black suit, Byrd projects a friendly but razor-sharp enthusiasm. Like jazz, he can seem both hyper and cool, with words that tumble out in a rush but turn out to be well-chosen and elegantly articulated.

And again like jazz, Byrd ricochets from theme to theme, landing consistently on a few that he has tried to emphasize in his current production.

" 'The Nutcracker' is the most popular ballet in the States, let's face it," he says. "And the message is about families, communities, forgiveness, love and hope. And the fact that life goes on."

Thinking about these themes in an African American context, Byrd says, meant thinking about the recent history of black families and communities, the way every individual needs to be valued and connected to a larger community. And the fact that we can't let the American family be defined in exclusionary terms.

"We should recognize those people onstage," Byrd says in a rush of enthusiasm for the contemporary characters in his ballet. "We have hopes and wishes for harmony, and the 'Nutcracker' party can provide that."

He stops, laughing at his own earnestness.

"After all, it is a 'Nutcracker,' so it can't handle too much." Besides, he says, "Americans love show business too, and 'The Nutcracker' provides a good show." But soon he's back to the theme of inclusion.

"I got tired of hearing the hysteria of the Christian right--that if you're not a particular kind of person, you don't fit in, you're not in the family, you have to change. Nobody has a monopoly on family values. It's like Hillary Clinton says, 'It takes a village.' "


Byrd's village of the moment is the contemporary Harlem mansion that the audience sees half an hour later as Act 1 of "The Harlem Nutcracker" begins, danced by the choreographer's ethnically diverse company, Donald Byrd/The Group, and guest artists. When the main character, Clara--a grandmother in this version, not a young girl--welcomes family, friends and neighbors to celebrate Christmas Eve, it's immediately clear that, metaphorically speaking, we are not in Kansas anymore. Nor are we anywhere, in fact, where the contained chatting and curtsies of a typical "Nutcracker" prevail.

For one thing, Byrd's version swings--the score, assembled by jazz composer-conductor David Berger, incorporates Duke Ellington's arrangement of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite, with additions by Billy Strayhorn and Berger, who also conducts local jazz orchestras for each engagement on the tour (the UCLA Jazz Ensemble at the Wiltern). Replacing the prissy party guests who march and minuet at the homes of traditional Claras, there are Latino neighbors doing salsa, homies hip-hopping and a gospel choir of carolers dropping by for a number.

The nutcracker doll is special to this grown-up Clara (Eleanor McCoy), because it was an engagement gift from her late husband (Gus Solomons Jr.), whom she sees in a vision. So it follows that when Clara falls asleep, her husband is her prince, and her luminous, imaginary land is a Harlem nightclub in the '20s. There are still pieces of candy and flowers who dance, as well as Chinese and Arabian dances--but all with an attitude, and plenty of high-heeled shoes.

If Byrd has his way, these characters will soon coexist alongside their balletic Victorian counterparts. They won't displace them, mind you--Byrd himself adores George Balanchine's "Nutcracker" and speaks of his favorite classical ballet moments with a loving reverence not all modern dance choreographers can muster. Nor does Byrd intend to satirize "The Nutcracker," as another contemporary choreographer, Mark Morris, has done with a version called "The Hard Nut."

What Byrd wants to do is plug into the ever-ready "Nutcracker" tradition and expand it at the same time. He hopes that "The Harlem Nutcracker" will be staged by other contemporary African American dance companies and that it will help broaden their audiences, as well as transmit the inclusive family-values message he thinks is embedded in the ballet.

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