Dallas — Tickets sold out a week in advance of Dallas Black Dance Academy’s The Espresso Nutcracker. The event was so popular that I barely managed to snag a pair of tickets (due to a late-booking error of my own making). And as I left the glitzy Majestic Theatre in Dallas after the performance on Friday night I could see why: the one-hour, jazz-cum-ballet production gave children the chance to experience the holiday tradition in a format specifically designed for North Texas’s most wiggly residents.
The show premiered last year at the Latino Cultural Center — after community interest required DBDA to find a larger venue than the school’s own performance space. This year Dallas Black Dance Academy, the official school for Dallas Black Dance Theatre, easily sold out the Majestic, as audience members spilled out onto the sidewalk when they queued to pick up tickets.
The production had other non-traditional features besides its length. It presented a musical blend between Tchaikovsky’s original score and a Nutcracker Suite arrangement composed by Duke Ellington. The infusion of jazz was a welcome addition that transformed the Nutcracker experience. Gone was the European aristocratic setting. Instead the party scene opened at the 20th-century home of the Black family, where courtly dance was replaced with jazz performed by the adults and children in attendance. (Some members of Dallas Black Dance Theatre and DBDT: Encore! performed as the adults in this scene). Elegant evening gowns in dark jewel tones or white replaced the frilly costumes typically worn in the party scene. Duke Ellington’s music also gave DBDA students a chance to demonstrate their versatility. Notable in this regard was Clara, played by Kinni McVea-Ocasio, who excelled in blending ballet and jazz, matching turned-out, pointed positions with swaying hips and open hands.
Unlike most other productions, Espresso Nutcracker’s nutcracker remained in wood-and-paint form throughout the show. Instead of relying on the Nutcracker to save her from an onslaught of rats, Clara works with the toy soldiers to defend herself. The slicing lines of rat and soldier arms, complemented by lean, body-hugging costumes, departed from the curved sways of the jazzy party scene.
After passing through a snowy wonderland, Clara and Uncle Drosselmeyer (Richard A. Freeman, Jr., a member of DBDT: Encore!) arrived in the Land of Sweets, where DBDA students from the youngest to the most senior performed the traditional themed divertissements for the pair. Clara was also transported to Africa, where Saada Diggs, leading a corps of young students, showcased African dance, one of the core dance form that DBDA teaches students. The arched backs and wide, circular arm movements proved an exciting addition to the Land of Sweets entertainment.
DBDA’s production, like many other North Texas productions, did not attempt to update the national dances to reflect a more nuanced or historically accurate version of the Chinese, Arabian, or Russian divertissements. The Arabian dancers wore veils and jangling sashes around their hips, and the Chinese dancers had chopsticks in their hair. I’m not sure it is the responsibility of DBDA to update these scenes, however. I’m in favor of pushing seasoned professional companies — the artistic leaders of which often originated the various choreographies and costumes associated with these scenes — to take the lead in pushing the national dances into the 21st century.
The reed flutes who followed the Russian dance were terrific. The choreography by Sierra Noelle Jones had the dancers in series of geometrical patterns that, along with Duke Ellington’s score, were mesmerizing. When the Sugar Plum Fairy made her debut shortly thereafter, I was happy to see that DBDA chose to feature one of their senior students, Olivia Wilson, in the role, unaccompanied by a cavalier. Her solo provided an opportunity for the Academy to show off its talented students and to test the role without its traditional male-female pairing: a success on both counts.
Rather than a traditional set, the performers danced in front of digital projections. While some of the images worked, the projections as a whole could have been improved by giving them stylistic coherence and by evening out the image quality. Perhaps using all illustrations or all photographs might resolve this issue.
The production ended abruptly, with Clara asleep beside her nutcracker. The abrupt ending seemed to surprise the audience because the house took a few seconds to break into applause. Although the transition might have been smoothed with a few seconds’ timing change, nothing about the sudden ending dampened audience appreciation that erupted during curtain call. Let’s hope Espresso Nutcracker becomes an annual Dallas event.