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Review: Ballethnic’s “Urban Nutcracker” captures heart of the Christmas classic

The snow scene from Ballethnic’s “Urban Nutcracker.”
The snow scene from Ballethnic’s “Urban Nutcracker.”

“The Nutcracker” is back in town. The first version of the Christmas classic to be performed in Atlanta this season was Ballethnic Dance Company’s “Urban Nutcracker,” at the Ferst Center for the Arts from Thursday through Sunday.

Billed as showcasing “the rich history of Atlanta’s own African-American community,” “Urban Nutcracker” is set in the Sweet Auburn district in the 1940s. In this milieu, the Sugar Plum Fairy is called Brown Sugar and her Prince the Chocolatier. The Nutcracker is “modeled after” Marcus Garvey, a leader in the Pan-Africanism movement, although you might not know that without the program note.

Apart from these and other cultural details, this is a surprisingly traditional production. There is no jazz score (as in Donald Byrd’s “Harlem Nutcracker”), no satire or drag fantasies (as in Mark Morris’ “The Hard Nut”) and no hip-hop (as in countless productions across the country). There is only one brief departure from the taped Tchaikovsky score: L. Gerard Reid’s percussive composition for the Black Russian dance in Act II.

Overall, this is a big-hearted, low tech, ballet lover’s “Nutcracker” with a community flavor. Ballethnic promotes itself as “Classical, Community, Cultural.” All three were in evidence Friday. Only in Atlanta would you see a Coca-Cola pas de six. Only in Atlanta would the people playing the party guests include members of the H.J.C. Bowden Multipurpose Senior Facility.

In her fascinating book “Nutcracker Nation,” Jennifer Fisher suggests that “The Nutcracker” has become an American ritual on a par with graduations, weddings and bar mitzvahs, as much about the community that performs and attends it each year as about ballet as an art form. “The purpose isn’t to get close to the original … but to bring the original closer to them,” she writes. “Urban Nutcracker” fits that description while assuring us that this is ballet, not MTV.

Choreographer Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath, Ballethnic’s co-founders and co-artistic directors, open the show with the requisite parade of guests on their way to the Christmas party. They greet Big Mama (Sheila Spivey), who sits on a sofa stage left and reads the story to her granddaughter (Taylor Crooms), an unusual touch.

The curtain rises to reveal the festive home of Attorney Johnson (Lucas). As the familiar music settles in, the guests arrive in large family groups. Some are sophisticated and aloof, others warm and friendly. In a less than original but fun piece of stage business, they pile coats on the long-suffering maid (Ebony Hayes) until she is practically invisible. Gilreath and Lucas have trained their cast to bring enormous personality to this sometimes tedious scene.

Young Lauryn Adams demonstrated secure technique and a winning, natural stage presence in the central role of Sarah Johnson (Clara or Maria in other productions). After a shaky start, Shaquille Bailey showed off his strong elevation and imbued the role of Sarah’s brother Leroy with just the right amount of annoying brotherly behavior. Andrew Bailey was a dramatic but not too menacing Professor Isaac (a.k.a. Drosselmeyer). The doll variations were all solidly performed by company members and guest artists.

The beauty of this production was in its sincerity and commitment to the story. The Professor flapped his red cape as the clock struck midnight, the Christmas tree grew tall and the adult rats (led by a Queen here, not a King) fought the Nutcracker and his pint-sized soldiers.

The pure dancing began in the Land of Snow. The choreography for the snowflake corps was a bit static in places, but it opened up with Gilreath’s and Roscoe Sales’ swirling pas de deux. Mark Burns danced an odd little “blink and you missed it” solo as Blizzard.

Notable here and throughout the production was the company’s ability to fill the stage with action, connect with the audience and move beautifully in unison, even when individual dancers at times looked effortful in their turns and jumps. Much of the corps work, after all, was performed by student dancers, not professionals. Also notable was the purity of head and arm movements, evidence of good classical training.

The Land of the Sweets variations in Act II are where some choreographers get overly inventive. Here again, relative tradition reigned. Regine Metayer was all flexible exoticism in Arabian, with Lucas as her reliable partner. The Chinese dance was Chinese in the way that many ballet companies do it, which is fun but not really Chinese. The Black Russian men, led by Chad Jones, leapt with virtuoso vigor.

Towering Mother Spice (a.k.a. Mother Ginger) watched over her brightly attired brood of Spice Drops as they performed handstands, cartwheels and aerial walkovers. It would have been nice if the wheeled platform for Mother had been hidden by her skirts, but it wasn’t.

The choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers had Wild Flower (the expressive Laila Howard) dropping into floor work that spoiled the flow of this particularly danceable section. (What fun that her partner, Mark Burns, is called Urban Gardener.) As Brown Sugar, Brandy Carwile demonstrated beautifully fluid, supported pirouettes and excelled in her turns across the floor. Her partner, Calvin Gentry, was arguably the strongest and most elegant dancer of the night.

The sets were primarily simple backdrops. There was a smart living room followed by a snow scene flecked with moving lights that evoked snowflakes. Images of licorice sticks and ice cream sundaes created the mood in the Land of the Sweets. Brown Sugar arrived in a banana-split coach. This is not a low-calorie production.

“Urban Nutcracker” deserves a larger audience than it had on Friday: the house was less than half full. Those who attended, however, could have their pictures taken with a nutcracker prop in the lobby and buy flowers for the dancers. Since this production’s premiere in 1983, scores of children have no doubt danced their way through the ranks, year by year.

If, as Fisher suggests, “The Nutcracker” is both a ballet and a ritual that enriches our communities, “Urban Nutcracker” fits the bill.

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