Visions of Sugar Rum Cherries Tap Dance in Her Head

There are nostalgic “Nutcrackers” and tongue-in-cheek “Nutcrackers” and burlesque “Nutcrackers” and hip-hop Nutcrackers. But the Joyce Theater, one of New York’s busiest dance stages, has never had a “Nutcracker,” or any specifically holiday-themed show, for that matter, in its 38-year history.

This missed opportunity was on Aaron Mattocks’s mind when he became the Joyce’s new programming director, he said in a recent phone interview: “I was thinking, everybody else in the world runs a ‘Nutcracker.’ What if we started that tradition as well?”

Mr. Mattocks was still in the brainstorming stage when he engaged the tap choreographer Michelle Dorrance and her company, Dorrance Dance, for the three-week period around the holidays. The theater simply commissioned a new work, no strings attached.

He was pleasantly surprised to hear, a few weeks later, that a “Nutcracker” was precisely what Ms. Dorrance had in mind. “I’ve loved the score forever,” she said recently, “and I realized that now’s the time. I think it’s important to create joyful work in a time that feels really dark.”

What better container for that than a dance about children conquering their fears and traveling to a fantasyland where people express themselves by dancing together? Each of the three programs Dorrance Dance is presenting through Jan. 5 will include Ms. Dorrance’s new holiday piece, “ … The Nutcracker Suite….” The shows will be rounded out by recent works, a different combination each week.

The score that Ms. Dorrance was referring to was not Tchaikovsky’s familiar one — though she loves that too — but the jazz reinterpretation by Duke Ellington and his collaborator and arranger Billy Strayhorn, recorded by Ellington’s band in 1960. The nine-part suite is about 30 minutes long, each number a riff on a familiar section of the original.

Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” becomes “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” and the “March of the Toy Soldiers” is transformed into “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” a raucous, decidedly unmarchlike big-band composition with lots of brass. The Sugarplum Fairy, here called Sugar Rum Cherry, dances to a slow, cheeky, boom-chicka-boom number, decidedly naughtier than Tchaikovsky’s tinkling melody for the celesta.

The orchestrations are playful, surprising, imaginative. Ms. Dorrance and her collaborators on the project, Josette Wiggan-Freund and Hannah Heller, have responded in kind. The three, who have worked together several times before, share credit for the concept. “It’s been a collaborative process from the beginning,” Ms. Dorrance said. “There is a wonderful sisterhood inside of this process.”

Ms. Wiggan-Freund is doing triple duty as co-choreographer, Clara’s mother and Sugar Rum Cherry. (Ms. Heller is Rat King, and Ms. Dorrance isn’t in the show.) Her Sugar Rum is all spice — sexy and warm at the same time. The depiction is, in part, a homage to Mable Lee, a tap dancer in hundreds of films and nightclub acts who died this year, at 97.

Just as Ellington and Strayhorn added swing to classical scores in various jazz suites, Ms. Dorrance and her collaborators, gesturing at a wide range of moods and traditions, have fused tap and other American idioms like the Lindy Hop and hip-hop, with some faux Russian folk dance thrown in to shake things up.

Within the condensed framework of the suite, they’ve kept the basic elements of the Nutcracker adventure: a family gathering; a struggle between a young girl, her friend the Nutcracker, and a mouse king (or a Rat King in this case); and finally, a celebratory voyage to a fantasyland.

The colorful costumes, by Andrew Jordan, reflect the show’s respectful but not overly reverent take on the original: The mechanical dolls in the party scene look like Pinocchio’s distant cousins, but the mice are nattily dressed jazz dancers (although with big ears), and the dancers in the flower waltz wear bright green jumpsuits paired with extravagantly petaled headdresses.

Ms. Dorrance and her collaborators have added a few of their own touches to the familiar story. Clara, described in the program as “a young girl,” is danced by a male dancer (the lanky Leonardo Sandoval), and the Nutcracker is a woman, the longtime company-member Brittany DeStefano.

“There’s an innocence about Leo,” Ms. Dorrance said, “that I think is really important for the character of Clara. And Brittany has this wonderful combination of a stoic, strikingly deadpan face and a very fluid dance style, which we were curious about exploring.”

Most of the fine-tuning of the libretto was focused on finding the right balance of storytelling and action. “I think that what people have sometimes found to be tiresome in traditional Nutcrackers,” Ms. Dorrance said, “is the epic amount of pantomime in the first part.” So she keeps the story moving along, which has the welcome effect of opening up the space for dancing.

Her version still nods at the original’s pageant of national dances, like the Trepak, or Slavic dance. “We’re absolutely leaning hard into Russian folkloric references because they have such brilliant percussive elements,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a flamboyant show of athleticism, so we’ve used that energy.”

While preserving the Slavic flavor usually associated with the Trepak — split jumps and low-to-the ground squats — she has also translated some of its showy moves into an American equivalent: the “flash,” or acrobatic, moves of spectacular tap dancing acts like the Nicholas Brothers. The dancers spin, flip, jump, do splits. The two accents, American and Russian, overlap happily.

In other cases, like the “Chinese dance,” called “Chinoiserie” by Ellington, Ms. Dorrance and her collaborators tread lightly around the issue of depicting non-European cultures. The soloist in their version — with the melody Strayhorn and Ellington scored for clarinet and tenor sax — is Claudia Rahardjanoto, who grew up in Berlin but is of Indonesian background. Besides tap and ballet, she has also studied a little bit of Balinese dancing. So she has woven some Balinese hand movement into the tap choreography, with Ms. Dorrance’s blessing.

This sort of decentralized decision-making is typical of the freedom Ms. Dorrance encourages in her dancers. “You come up with some material on your own,” Ms. Rahardjanoto explained after rehearsal, “and then you go through it together and Michelle gives you some indications of which direction to go in.” Theirs is very much a collaborative process.

Where Ms. Dorrance’s hand is most in evidence is in the large, meticulously choreographed ensembles. In one of these, waves of dancers suddenly organize themselves into pairs, sliding like skaters on a frozen pond. Then, out of nowhere, they reappear as a giant revolving figure made out of multiple concentric chains, traveling in opposite directions. In another, small groups, which she calls “schools of fish” crisscross the stage, sashaying with the suavity (if not the loucheness) of Fosse dancers.

This isn’t the first “Nutcracker” to capitalize on the swinging sophistication of Ellington and Strayhorn’s suite. The first time Ms. Dorrance became aware of the jazz version was in an evening of dance put on by her mother, M’Liss Dorrance, with her colleagues at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, in North Carolina. She set the story at an adult cocktail party.

In the 1990s there was the “Harlem Nutcracker,” which also used the Ellington-Strayhorn music. Later, in the early 2000s, the tap innovator Brenda Bufalino created her own tap version, “Clara’s Dream,” using parts of the suite. Even in this respect, Ms. Dorrance is working within a tradition.

What makes her seem particularly suited to the project is the combination of craft and showmanship in her work. “She has this love of vaudeville,” Mr. Mattocks said. “She really knows how to put on a show.”

There’s something else, too. A recent rehearsal at Gibney studios in Manhattan was remarkable for several reasons, not least of which was the sense of inclusiveness and, well, joy in the room. It was filled with dancers of all types, body shapes and races. Their diversity was also reflected in their dancing; though all were obviously good tappers, each had his or her own way of moving — looser or more streamlined, lower to the ground or lighter on the feet. Chorus line-like uniformity was clearly not the goal. And yet somehow they became a coherent whole, at one with the music.

Even more noticeable was the way the dancers encouraged and helped one another between numbers, going over forgotten steps, or teaching each other new ones that had just been added. “Every time we come together it’s like that,” Ms. Rahardjanoto told me. “It’s just that Michelle is a very joyful and generous person. So we bring out the best in each other in the most joyous, generous kind of way.”

And this, after all, seems like just the right spirit for a holiday show.

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