Dorrance Dance dives into Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” score with flash and jazzy tap.
The Dorrance Dance’s “Nutcracker Suite” at the Kennedy Center is not your grandmother’s holiday ballet. I can say this because I have seen hundreds of “Nutcracker” productions, large and small, professional and local, and I am a grandmother!
…whacky, wonderfully entertaining tap dance extravaganza…impressive…
The best way to enjoy this whacky, wonderfully entertaining tap dance extravaganza is to familiarize yourself with Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov who choreographed the first “Nutcracker” for the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1892. Set to a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and based on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the original reached the USA when the San Francisco presented the first full-length ballet rendition in 1944. Then came George Balanchine’s magnificent production in 1954 and the rest is history. The ballet became an American tradition forever.
Once the sugarplums continue to dance in your head and you are humming that sweet Sugar Plum solo created on a celesta (a keyboard instrument where the hammers strike orchestral bells), toss these images into a closet and tune into Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s score, a funky collaboration between sound and movement. Created in 1960, the juxtaposition of tap against Tchaikovsky’s balletic score is a daring choice that pays off in every performance. Tap dancing is what this show is about.
Like many classics, “The Nutcracker” can withstand all kinds of variations. In this version, there are differences. The Mouse King is not a scary beast but a slick gangster who resembles a rodent from a movie set with a crown over his mouse ears. In the ballet, little Clara bops the Mouse King with her pink slipper and wins one for the Nutcracker (though we never find out if the slipper is returned to our heroine.) In Dorrance’s take, her tap shoe hits the villain and is returned by the Sugarplum’s Cavalier (Jabu Graybeal, my favorite dancer) who places the killer shoe downstage center for all to marvel.
The Sugarplum Fairy becomes the Sugar Rum Cherry (sexy, sensational Josette Wiggan who is credited with some of the show’s choreography). Clara’s Uncle Drosselmeyer becomes her Godfather. However, the plot remains the same as the original. Clara is at a family party celebrating Christmas when the odd man with a cape and an eye patch arrives mysteriously and gives her a nutcracker as a present. She falls asleep and dreams of joining the Nutcracker in fighting off the Rat King, then celebrates her brave victory by watching a series of dancing candy.
The music includes the catchy and familiar music of “The Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky featured in classical ballet but with the twist of the absolutely wonderful, jazz arrangement by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. It is a marvelous interpretation, providing the perfect accompaniment for tap dancing or on its own. Sometimes there is no music, just the rhythmic sounds of tap dancing providing its own accompaniment.
The divertissements (dane diversions) include the Floreadores (the dancing flowers) who swing and sway to the familiar “Waltz of the Flowers.” Mother Ginger opens her herbage hooped skirt to a half dozen Russian dancers who kick in unison and tap as if trying to impress even the most cynical viewer. Indeed, the tap dancing is impressive, and we all left with big smiles and lots of clapping. I may never feel the same way about a classical “Nutcracker” ballet.
Running Time: One hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.
“The Nutcracker Suite’ runs through December 2, 2023 presented by Dorrance Dance at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. The show is currently sold out. The company travels to Philadelphia to perform at the Annenberg Center (on the University of Pennsylvania campus) Friday, Dec. 8, at 8p.m. and Saturday, December 9, at 2 and 8 p.m. It’s worth the trip. For more information on upcoming events at the Kennedy Center, go online.
(*Full Title: We Present to You: The Nutcracker Suite or, a Rhythmaturgical Evocation of the SuperLeviathonic Enchantments of Duke and Billy’s Supreme Adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Masterpiece That Tells a Tale of a Misunderstood Girl Who Kills a King and Meets a Queen and Don’t Forget OOOO-Gong-Chi-Gong-Sh’-Gon-Make-It-Daddy, and That It Ain’t So Bad After All.)