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'The Harlem Nutcracker' on Seattle stage re-imagines traditional tale

The Harlem Nutcracker premiered in New York in 1996.
Courtesy of Spectrum Dance Theater
The Harlem Nutcracker premiered in New York in 1996.

In many traditional holiday “Nutcracker” ballets, Clara is a young girl who envisions a magical world where she meets a Prince and Sugarplum Fairy. But in choreographer Donald Byrd's version, Clara is a grandmother, the setting is Harlem and the visions are of her past.

Donald Byrd's “The Harlem Nutcracker” premiered in 1996 in New York. The dances are to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Nutcracker Suite," with additional Ellington-inspired interpretations of Tchaikovsky's score by David Berger.

The show hasn't been performed anywhere in nearly two decades. Now Byrd, who moved to Seattle 17 years ago, is bringing it back. His Spectrum Dance Theater is performing a workshop production Dec. 12-15 at On The Boards in Seattle. His plan is to add to it each year until "the whole Harlem Nutcracker can return in all its glory" on its 25th anniversary in 2021.

Byrd said when he created the show, he saw it as a way to show the warmth of African-American families. He said at the time, in the mid '90s, there was a lot of talk from conservative whites about their family values. All these years later, he said, he's expanding on that idea in the show. He points out the show now includes Hispanic, Asian and biracial people.

"Black families are still at the core of it, but by extension communities of color have something to say about family values and the importance of family," Byrd said.

In the production’s party scene, Clara's children and grandchildren come to decorate the Christmas tree. It's the first holiday since Clara's husband died.

The other act included in this year's production is set in a Harlem Cotton Club-style nightclub, called Club Sweets. The dances include "Peanut Brittle" and "Sugar Rum Cherry."  Dancer Michelle Dooley says they are great fun to dance to.

"I like that it's jazzy,” she said. “It just gives me energy.”

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.