In 1960, jazz greats Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington infused Tchaikovsky’s most recognizable composition with American rhythms and twentieth-century chords. The Ellington/Strayhorn “Nutcracker” was an upbeat, swinging take on the soundtrack of the holidays—and the first time a major label gave side-by-side credit to Black and white composers on the same album. This year, their score gets its full story-ballet due in “Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker,” premiering at the Auditorium Theatre December 20-30.
The production is based out of—and set in—New York City, with a towering, Drosselmeyer tree-sized creative team, each bedecked in sparkling Tony, Emmy and Grammy nominations. Producers David Garfinkle, Rob Quadrino and Ron Simons enlisted Tony nominee Joshua Bergasse to direct. Orchestration is by Grammy winner John Clayton and three-time Tony nominee Larry Blank. The book is by Jessica Swan, who set the tale in 1930s Manhattan, in the home of a well-to-do Black family. Young Lena (our heroine, adapted from Clara) rebels against her upscale background to explore the jazz scene in fantastical Sugar Hill.
The music and plot demand Black American dance styles, and a team of choreographers worked on the production. Jade Hale-Christofi, Caleb Teicher and Jon Boogz contributed dances and further dance consultation was provided by Tony-winner Graciela Daniele. Ballet is still present—the audition notice demanded in all-caps “dancers of color with strong ballet technique—but Black dances through the ages—jazz, tap, Lindy-Hop and street dance—all make an appearance.
For the street-dance piece, Garfinkle reached out to Jon Boogz, whose distinctive popping style and emotionally sweeping video collaborations with Lil Buck have commanded national attention, including mainstream outlets like the New York Times. It’s been a good year for Boogz, who received an Emmy nomination for his choreography in the show “Blindspotting” and is writing and directing his own show at the Public Theater.
Boogz says in a phone interview that he was excited about the challenge of putting street dance to the Ellington and Strayhorn score. “It’s an opportunity to carry on their legacy in a new and refreshing way. The art form I do came out many, many years after Strayhorn and Ellington made their music. It was nice to go back and figure out how I could put this genre of movement on that music. Back then street dance existed, but it was mainly tappers. How do I find the soul and funk and spirit of this music so it speaks to me?”
“Once I find it, I got it,” he adds.
Boogz choreographed two sections of “Sugar Hill” for four dancers. In the first, they play New Yorkers Lena encounters on her first foray into the city, in a section called “Feet to the Beat.” “These four represent the intimidation of the hustle and bustle of the big city. They tease and mess with her because they can see ‘you’re not from around here.’” Later on, the quartet reappear as the four winds that guide Lena to a mansion when she gets off the A train.
Thirty-one dancers fill out the cast of “Sugar Hill,” including Johnathon Darcelle Hart, a Chicago native who began dancing at the age of fifteen at the Chicago High School for the Arts. Hart is a natural, excelling at what seems like every genre of movement. He danced three seasons with Ballet Met and one tour with Lil’ Kim. His skill and versatility landed him on Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” list last year.
“As a dancer, I can go from one extreme to the other. I can look completely like a ballet dancer or completely like someone who does hip-hop,” he says in a phone interview. For “Sugar Hill” Hart dances several ballet ensemble roles, and dances swing for the first time. The swing scene, choreographed by Caleb Teicher, takes place in a jazz club. Hart and another male dancer have a flirtation that is abruptly broken up when the Hooligan King (adapted from the Mouse King) barges in.
There are no visual clues on what to expect in this reimagined holiday classic—no production photos or video teasers accompanied the announcement or have been released. But Hart is certain of one thing, “The world is going to love it because they’ve never seen all these types of dances in one show. I’ve never seen jazz, ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, swing, tap all in one ballet setting. It goes extremely one end to the other. It’s not borderline anything—it’s exactly what that style is.”
“Sugar Hill: The Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells, December 20-30. Tickets start at $44. Tickets and info at auditoriumtheatre.org.