Forget the visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.
What about all the versions of “The Nutcracker” dancing on stages in every American city?
Tchaikovsky’s ballet may not have shaken the world when he first presented it, in 1892, but in the 60 years since George Balanchine’s landmark 1954 production for the New York City Ballet, it has become the holiday staple that funds half the rest of the season for many companies.
All manner of Nutcrackers have been performed, from rock to hip-hop. This year’s crop includes even a musical variant with puppets and a new score at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre.
Washington favorite son Duke Ellington put his own spin on “The Nutcracker Suite” in a 1960 recording with Billy Strayhorn. Its jazzy variations have been picked up by others; the work will be part of a National Symphony Orchestra pops performance with Cirque de la Symphonie at the Kennedy Center, Dec. 11-13.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is taking Ellington’s version a step further, adding the percussive rhythms of the District’s 20-year-old, widely touring step dance troupe Step Afrika! with new choreography for two family shows on Dec. 6.
“The impetus was thinking about how to create a new holiday program for our midweek youth concert and also for our family concerts,” said Carol Bogash, the vice president of education and community engagement for the BSO.
“I knew the Ellington version and really always enjoyed it,” Bogash said of “The Nutcracker.” “We wanted to present something that’s never actually never been presented before in this region: Ellington’s ‘Nutcracker’ with actual choreography by a professional step company.”
To do “Nutcracker” this time of year is a no-brainer, said BSO education director Annemarie Guzy. “‘The Nutcracker’ is wildly popular.”
They contacted Step Afrika!, whose founder and artistic director, C. Brian Williams, wasn’t familiar with the Ellington version.
“The first thing we did was, we bought the album and listened to it to see where we would find ourselves in that music,” Williams said. “There were some natural connections.”
In addition to his D.C. roots, Ellington was “a member of a historically black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.” Williams said. And it was in the African American fraternities where step dancing began.
It’s where Williams, a Houston native, found the tradition while attending Howard University in the late 1980s, about the same time Spike Lee was introducing the wider world to stepping in his 1988 film “School Daze.”
“Stepping was just a thing we did together for fun. That’s how I learned step dancing, in a very traditional, folkloric approach to the art form,” Williams said.
“In stepping, the body is used as an instrument: We use our hands, our feet, our voices, to make music together,” he said. “ The original intent of stepping was to show love and pride for the brotherhood and sisterhood inside of all of these groups. So it’s a uniquely African American tradition, but its connections to Africa, both in terms of call and response, and form and function, are tremendous.”
In Step Afrika! performances, the percussion they use provides the music. “We are the music throughout the entire show,” Williams said. “There is no track played behind us.”
That’s one part of what makes their role in Ellington’s “Nutcracker” unusual for them.
“We’ve performed with symphonies before,” he said. “But this one was a little different because music was already written. In other collaborations, the music was written around us and built around our percussive abilities, whereas this is: Here is the music. Find yourself in it.”
Along with the new choreography by company member Artis Olds, a former drum major at Ohio’s Central State University, the group is looking for places to contribute its percussive touches.
“We don’t want to add too much; we don’t want to change what he’s written and add all these percussive sounds he didn’t intend to be there,” Williams said. The aim is to “complement the score and add to the score, and not compete with it musically.”
Another challenge was the nature of orchestral and dance rehearsals.
“You don’t have long, extended rehearsals with the symphony before the performances,” Williams said. “It’s very, very tight.”
Practically speaking, there is less room to move when sharing the stage with a full orchestra. Dancers will have only about eight feet from the orchestra to the lip of the stage in which to move, Bogash said.
“What they can’t give you in depth, they give you in width,” said Williams.
And while other companies overload the stage with snowflakes and magically growing Christmas trees, there will be no chance to create a set for the performance.
Playing in two halls in two cities on the same day also will be new for the dance company.
“We’ve done two shows in one day, but never in two different venues,” Williams said.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs “Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker” with Step Afrika! on Dec. 6 at 11 a.m. at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, and at 4 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.bsomusic.org.
Catlin is a freelance writer.