Roll Over, Balanchine
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, one of the country's most traditional ballets and a holiday mainstay in any American company's repertoire, just got funkier. Through an innovative synthesis of dance, costumes, and music, audiences witness one little girl's exploration of her American and African roots in Ashanti Cultural Arts' presentation of The Chocolate Nutcracker.
Former Alvin Ailey dancer and Ashanti Cultural Arts artistic director Lu Welters conceived, choreographed, and directed the work, giving it more soul and making it more meaningful for black children. "The message of the piece is that you have to understand and acknowledge the past before you can embrace the future," Welters explains. In her "chocolate" version of the ballet, our young protagonist gets a new name (Clarissa) and two dolls instead of one -- a black Ballerina Barbie and an African doll. As she twirls and pirouettes at the adults' Christmas party, an uncle gives her the African doll; she accepts it halfheartedly, feeling a stronger connection with her Ballerina Barbie.
Her attitude begins to change when, just as in Balanchine's classic, the little girl falls asleep and begins to dream. But instead of being whisked away to a make-believe world of sugarplum fairies and Spanish dancers, she's immersed in the reality and beauty of her own cultural heritage. The movement and music take her -- and audience members -- through a black pop-cultural time warp, from Harlem Renaissanceera jazz, to '50s and '60s girl groups like the Supremes and the Sherelles, to '70s soul. Vividly colored period costuming, including zoot suits and bell-bottoms, adds to the effect. The scenery is colorful, too: At one point the stage is transformed into an African village, where Clarissa meets her great-great-grandmother, who first received the African doll that Clarissa's uncle has passed on to her.
With a cast of 36, members of which range in age from 5 to their mid-60s, The Chocolate Nutcracker is a full-stage production that also incorporates drummers, stilt walkers, and traditional African dancers. The second act features a performance by a professional African dance group and singer.
"All of these traditions have been passed down to me through my family in one form or another," notes Welters, "and they have taught me the importance of valuing where I'm from before moving forward."
Welters, a South Florida native, knows something about moving forward. After just a year at Florida State University, she quit school and sold T-shirts on the beach in South Florida, saving enough for an airplane ticket to New York City to audition for the Alvin Ailey dance company. With her family's support, she was able to realize her dream. She danced with the famous troupe from 1987 through 1991. Her 20 years as a dancer of modern, African, and traditional African-American forms culminate in her vibrantly and eclectically choreographed Nutcracker, a cultural celebration of dance and music.
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