Donald Byrd first grabbed the attention of Los Angeles audiences nearly 19 years ago with a boldly satiric and streetwise take on classical ballet. Ever since, his most memorable achievements have also sharply deconstructed the cultural rhetoric and social illusions conveyed through theatrical dance. So it's no surprise to find brilliant show-biz parodies crowning his latest project, "The Harlem Nutcracker," which opened a sold-out five-performance run at the Wiltern Theatre on Friday.
No, what's unexpected about this full-evening jazz version of the Tchaikovsky Christmas classic is how little else inspires Byrd beyond those three or four divertissements midway through Act 2. This "Nutcracker" is indeed a remarkable accomplishment, but you have to search beyond his shapeless ensemble choreography and flat exhibition-ballroom sequences to see it clearly.
Like Mark Morris' groundbreaking "Hard Nut" and Matthew Bourne's daring "Swan Lake" now running in London, Byrd's "Nutcracker" reflects an emphasis on updating, personalizing and renewing the narrative components of ballets that seem increasingly remote and devitalized in traditional stagings. However, Byrd proves less adept than Morris or Bourne at making his radically revamped plot line suit the prevailing musical impulse--and also less inventive when it comes to making that plot line dance.
Using David Berger's masterly new expansion of the supremely witty and elegant half-hour "Nutcracker Suite" that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn adapted from Tchaikovsky some 36 years ago, Byrd has moved the ballet to the African American community and made Clara (normally a child-heroine) into a grandmother facing death at Christmastime.
Strongly acted by Eleanor McCoy as Clara and choreographer Gus Solomons Jr. as her dead husband, this story is told primarily through pantomime--more pantomime than in the 1892 source-work. The major solo of Act 2 is now called Sugar Rum Cherry and takes place in the Club Sweets, but Clara is still sitting on the sidelines watching somebody else dance the night away.
Right after the divertissements, Byrd plunges energetically into Clara's crisis with a series of pithy mime vignettes supposedly staged by the figure of Death and garnished with hot group dancing. But the impression lingers that he's left himself little opportunity for what he does best and that his collaborators are all working at a much higher level of creativity.
Eduardo Sicangco, for instance, has conjured up superbly mobile scenery that evokes everything from slightly stolid bourgeois domesticity to slightly garish nightclub splendor. Gabriel Berry's powder-puff snow-tutus and other costuming whimsies further enliven the production, with the whirling, checkerboard light-pools and other effects designed by David H. Rosenburg proving quite a spectacle as well.
Among the dancers, Elizabeth Parkinson has technique and hauteur to burn in two of Byrd's best showpieces, while Laura Rossini and Aldawna Morrison make the most of less opportune opportunities. The UCLA Gospel Choir and 21 local children also add to the vitality of the event.
But "The Harlem Nutcracker" belongs most of all to Berger, who sustains the scintillating dialogue with Tchaikovsky that Ellington and Strayhorn initiated using sections of "The Nutcracker" they never touched. Sometimes the result sounds like a literal jazz paraphrase of Pyotr Ilyich, sometimes like a free-form fantasy in which nearly all the original melodic contours vanish into a swinging blare of instrumental timbres. And even when Byrd bogs down, Berger never falters--though the UCLA Jazz Ensemble is hardly comparable to the hand-picked jazz-masters heard on the original Ellington/Strayhorn LP.
Byrd has said that he choreographed "The Harlem Nutcracker" partly to bring African Americans into the "Nutcracker" tradition--and that intention is, of course, now splendidly fulfilled. However, Berger's score is strong enough to both outlive Byrd's version and extend his multicultural mission. Once published and recorded, it should inspire other choreographers and other story lines--just as Tchaikovsky did. There's no such thing as the final "Nutcracker." So, for starters, exactly how available are Garth Fagan or Bebe Miller or Donald McKayle next Christmas?