“There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind,” big band leader, composer and D.C. native son Duke Ellington famously said. In 1960 he turned to Russian powerhouse Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky to inspire his re-imaging of the 1892 ballet warhorse The Nutcracker. Today, Tchaikovsky’s melodies are ubiquitous in North America from Thanksgiving through New Years – heard in shopping malls and television commercials in addition to concert halls and a plethora of ballet performances. Saturday afternoon, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra inaugurated its first family concert at Sfrathmore with Ellington’s jazzy reinvention of the suite from the Tchaikovsky original: “Waltz of the Flowers” to “Waltz of the Floreadores,” “The Russian Trepak” to the “Volga Vouty” and the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the far sexier sounding “Sugar Rum Cherry.” That a bus breakdown delayed the program by about 25 minutes didn’t seem to bother the sold-out audience who waited patiently for the orchestra members to take their places and tune up.
Today re-jigging a classic to make it swing, hit, bump or pop is a no-brainer, but in 1960 Ellington had skeptics – including his own orchesta. The composer pressed on and with his collaborator, the classically trained Billy Strayhorn, their recording was a breakthrough. In the dance world it has inspired an increasing number of companion pieces to the evergreen full-length ballet, which has become a Christmastime tradition and a cash-cow for ballet companies and studios of every stripe. Here in the District, I recall the long-defunct and still missed Capital Ballet’s Ellington Nutcracker from the mid-1980s, perhaps. That troupe, composed primarily of dancers of color, was directed by the formidable Doris Jones and Claire Haywood, who crafted an eclectic collection of ballet, jazz and tap numbers that brought the swinging and spicy Ellington/Strayhorn compositions to life.
The BSO re-envisioned the Ellington Nutcracker for the 21st century this year, commissioning D.C.’s beloved percussive dance troupe Step Afrika!, with support from Charlotte Cameron and the Dan Cameron Family Foundation. The Saturday afternoon program, which featured a smattering of Tchaikovsky’s original classical compositions, plus a whip-cracking “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, was conducted by Ken Lam, with narration by the personable Shannan Johnson, who encouraged kids, both small and larger, to march along in their seats during Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker march.
Step Afrika! company dancer Artis Olds’ choreography works best when it focuses on what the company is best known and most beloved for: that singular high-energy, percussive footwork – feet pounding the floorboards, knees pumping like pistons, arms slicing and dicing the air with admirable precision all drawn from the African-American fraternity and sorority tradition of step dancing. When Olds allows the dances to diverge into the balletic – there are two fairies in tutus and butterfly wings who flit like ungainly fireflies – the energy wanes and the dancers look far less professional. The short story, narrated by Johnson, features a brother and sister pair who watch their toys dance along with elves (who seemed to have snuck in from some other Christmas-oriented tale, there were never any elves in the Nutcracker), those clunky fairies and a steadfast tin soldier looking like a drum major – a nod to the African American tradition of marching bands. A highlight of the 30-minute suite was tap dancer Ryan Johnson’s penguin in shiny black patent leather shoes, who added a level of sophistication and rhythmic complexity with his fleet feet. When the company returned for its finale clad in an eclectic collection of primary-colored Gap shirts and pants, their jazzy riffs, gymnastic passes, and straddle jumps put an agreeable tag onto the work, which, though not flawless, has its appeal, particularly to audiences accustomed to symphony concerts rather than dance performances.
Narrator Shannan Johnson then led a brief interactive section of call-and-response between the dancers and the audience – a Step Afrika! trademark that never gets old. The BSO completed the brief program with a holiday sing-along. It’s hard to go wrong with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and that great Jewish-American Christmas anthem “White Christmas” — the most recorded holiday song ever.
Running Time: One hour with no intermission.