A swinging take on Tchaikovsky's ''Nutcracker Suite'' -- This jazzy version of classic ballet is set in Cotton-Club-era Harlem

By Chris Prentice
Updated December 13, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

”I wanted to create a ballet for our community,” says choreographer Donald Byrd during a final rehearsal in New York City for his ambitious world premiere of The Harlem Nutcracker. ”Something that would shake up the traditional idea of ballet.”

Infusing the holiday classic with a dose of urban reality, the Donald Byrd/The Group dance company has indeed shaken up ballet. This Nutcracker turns the venerable classic on its pointe shoes, recasting it as a story about a recently widowed grandmother (Elinor McCoy) visited in her Harlem home on Christmas Eve by the ghost of her dead husband (Gus Solomons Jr.). The couple strolls down memory lane to ”Club Sweets” — modeled after the legendary Cotton Club — where the Sugar Rum Cherry (Elizabeth Parkinson) commands the stage with a slinky strut.

”When I first heard the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s version of the Nutcracker seven years ago, it made me want to make something that my grandmother could come to and say, ‘Oh, that was lovely!”’ says Byrd, 47.

Yet this ”lovely” production has been the most costly undertaking so far for the 18-year-old company, with a final price tag of more than $1 million. The lavish show will visit six venues, including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. In various cities, local children and gospel choirs will perform with the company. With an impressive critical response and massive ticket sales, the production seems braced to be an instant classic. It’ll be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Dec. 11-15.

Byrd’s sometimes jarring style combines ballet, popular, and modern dance forms; the result is dynamic, visceral work by 25 of Gotham’s most lithe dancers. Costumed by Gabriel Berry, performers jitterbug and pirouette to arranger David Berger’s original jazz score (performed by a 17-piece orchestra), deeply influenced by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1962 jazz rewrite of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

In the late ’70s, Berger, a former member of the Ellington orchestra, first pitched a ballet-jazz Nutcracker to Alvin Ailey, who rejected the idea. Until Byrd approached Berger in 1989, the idea remained on hold. ”A few years went by, and then one day I got a call from Byrd saying, ‘The Nutcracker is on.”’

In the last year and a half, Berger finished arranging about 90 minutes of music based on the other Tchaikovsky themes to surround the 31-minute Ellington/Strayhorn music. After rearranging, Berger and Byrd came up with a two-hour score.

”The interesting thing is that the Ellington way of composing is you write the music for the individual players,” Berger says. ”Donald does the same with dancers. He really took from their personalities, expanding and exaggerating them to create his characters.”

Although Byrd typically creates shorter dances with abstract or metaphorical themes, he now slips into a group of artists taking on larger scale projects such as operas, revisions of full-length ballets, and evening-long collaborative works. ”I don’t want to just deal with what is near and dear to me,” says Byrd. ”Even though you do something like this and you end up realizing that what is near and dear also applies here. The Nutcracker allowed me to have a starting place with choreography, so then I could utilize and develop my directorial skills.”