A Crack in Tradition

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

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.' "

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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.

" 'The Nutcracker' is not a tradition in African American families and communities, and there's no reason that it should not be," Byrd says in an interview at his Fairfax hotel the day after the George Mason performance. "Because I think the values that it embodies are universal. There's a reason so many people come year after year to 'The Nutcracker' and bring their children--there's something they want them to see."

One of the subjects Byrd keeps coming back to--and tying to his "Nutcracker" in a general way--is what was lost as well as gained by the civil rights movement. Despite the triumphs of that struggle, Byrd says, something important disappeared when desegregation broke up many close-knit African American communities.

"We need to look at what was of value that was lost in the last 30 years," he says. "We need to reconnect both to particular communities and America in general. I think that's what people really want. For African Americans, it's important that we reestablish our links with our communities and our families before they were devastated by current conditions."

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Byrd himself enjoyed a supportive family atmosphere as he grew up in Jacksonville and Clearwater, Fla., in communities he calls "segregated but intact." At college, first at Yale, then at Tufts, he trained in theater, coming to dance only after his Tufts classmate William Hurt was "blown away" by seeing the Alvin Ailey company and recommended it to Byrd. It was also Hurt, Byrd says, who, after taking a choreography class, urged Byrd to do the same.

After college, Byrd threw himself into dance training, eventually performing with the contemporary troupes led by Twyla Tharp, Karole Armitage and Gus Solomons Jr. Byrd turned to choreography in 1976, founding Donald Byrd/The Group in Los Angeles in 1978 and moving the company to Brooklyn in 1983. Through the years, Byrd has set 80 works on his own and other companies, which include Philadanco, Lyon Opera Ballet, the Ailey company and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. He has also contributed choreography to stage productions for, among others, director Peter Sellars and the New York Public Theater.

Byrd's works have never shied away from controversy. Among his best-known dances are "The Minstrel Show" (1991), which featured African American dancers in blackface dealing with racist jokes, and "Life Situations" (1994), a radical reworking of "Giselle" that had the Wilis finally getting to kill the main character's caddish seducer.

About such pieces, he says, "I think sometimes I've been single-minded about some things--like I love the dark things--and it's interesting to me when people get all riled up. It means they're still alive and breathing out there."

But with "The Harlem Nutcracker," he discovered he was not averse to the concept of uplift.

"I used to hate this word 'uplift,' " he says, "I used to think it was so corny. But genuine uplift means your soul is touched. It doesn't have to hit in a heavy way, maybe just a tap."

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A series of vignettes toward the end of "The Harlem Nutcracker" may be the biggest "tap" of Byrd's newest creation. Or at least the most confusing, judging by audience conversation afterward. Clara witnesses several pantomimed scenes--almost like Scrooge's revisiting Christmas past. There is a black power salute here, a romantic interlude there, preaching, a dead girl, drug use.

Byrd explains that he wanted "to map through the decades the attitudes or aspirations of African Americans, how they saw themselves in the larger world." It doesn't matter in the end if each vignette is understood literally, he says; it's most important to understand that Clara's reaction is sorrow.

So it seems that Byrd hasn't abandoned his dark side completely in his new foray into holiday cheer. After all, Clara doesn't just drift into sleep and dream in this version--she has a flashback during what appears to be a heart attack. And then there's the addition of a character called Death.

Byrd laughs and says: "Oh, yeah, I get so close to it, I forget that might be unusual. But I feel like it's important to establish a relationship with the complete cycle of life--and death is part of it. The vision of death is at first horrible to Clara, because she can't accept it. The moment that she accepts it, it's not what she thought it was."

Although unusual, the concept of an elderly Clara looking back on life isn't entirely new to "Nutcracker"-land. The Louisville Ballet version tries something similar but uses the familiar, sprightly Tchaikovsky, whereas in Byrd's version, melancholy moments can be bittersweet--and even uplifting--because of the bluesy spin his choice of music puts on the familiar themes.

The idea that death can be a kind of hopeful transformation was inspired by an incident that occurred just before Byrd's own grandmother's death. Byrd describes a look that passed between his grandmother and him, how it meant to both of them that he was OK, that she could leave life just then and he would survive.

"I think that gifts come in many different packages and have really different manifestations," he says. "My grandmother's death was so painful, but it was also a gift to me--she gave me an incredible thing in her death, because she had an awareness that she was dying and she accepted it. My perspective changed as a result of that. In some ways, I think maybe what I'm trying to do is to share the gift that my grandmother gave to me with other people."

At the end of his new "Nutcracker," Clara also has such a realization, as she watches her family getting along and helping one another open Christmas presents. For Byrd, the message of family values, the vision of the strength to be found in individual relationships and supportive communities, coalesces here.

So far, it's also a message that hasn't been lost on the critics. The Washington Post's George Jackson wrote that "no other 'Nutcracker' has an ending so poignant, so pertinent, to what both Harlem and Christmas have come to mean." The Arizona Republic, at "Harlem Nutcracker's" world premiere, called it "an instant classic of family entertainment, certain to take its place in the repertoire." Even a more restrained New York Times called it "exuberant, stylish entertainment" and noted that it was "not only a family show [but] a show with with a message about family values."

For his part, Byrd seems to be paying the most attention to the audiences, and he is pleased with what he has overheard: "There's an incredible sense of pride about it--and ownership. Communities tend to own their 'Nutcrackers,' and people are already saying, 'Now when you come back next year. . . .'

"Just like that, like it's already their 'Nutcracker.' "

* Donald Byrd's "The Harlem Nutcracker," Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday and next Sunday, 2 and 8 p.m. $28-$35. (310) 825-2101.

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