It took five years of active persuading, plus nearly two decades of water under the proverbial bridge, before choreographer Donald Byrd finally agreed to resurrect “The Harlem Nutcracker.” Instantly loved after its 1996 New York premiere, his “Nutcracker” was financially doomed by 2001 — and left some scars on its way out.
“Even five years ago, if I thought about it, I actually felt sick because of all the emotional stuff that would come up,” said Byrd, longtime artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, before a recent rehearsal at the company’s studios in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood. “It created a lot of wedges with people I worked with, people who were friends. I was the choreographer — not the manager, not the producer — but people blamed me for all the stuff that went wrong. Because I was the face of it, I got the shit.”
Like many American arts tragedies, it was a story of ambitious vision outrunning the bank accounts — and souring relationships in the process. “The Harlem Nutcracker” became, in its way, a specter of Christmas past.
Now, Byrd is bringing it back, slowly and carefully, starting with a workshop production of the first section at On the Boards from Dec. 12-15.
But getting there took persuasion on several fronts: from the board (which had been asking for a moneymaking holiday show); from Spectrum’s executive director, Tera Beach (who first petitioned Byrd to bring “Nutcracker” back while she was working as an arts adviser for then-U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott); and, most poignantly, Spectrum school director Chris Montoya. The young students, Montoya argued, look up to Spectrum’s dancers — he just wanted to give them a chance to work with the artists they admired.
That got Byrd: “The school director pleaded with me in a way I could not resist.”
If Byrd had to be nudged back into “The Harlem Nutcracker,” it didn’t show during a recent rehearsal in Spectrum’s upstairs studio — the room seemed heart-fortifyingly joyous. While some dancers worked through the technically demanding choreography (from Byrd’s rigorous foundations in ballet to some exhausting-looking variations on the Lindy Hop), others cheered, snapped and clapped from the sidelines. Spectrum’s social media coordinator, sitting on a wooden chair, undulated to the rhythm while Byrd nodded his head. There was lots of laughter.
Byrd nodded toward some shoes lying nearby: “You all can’t dance in those, can you? I’m asking because I’m thinking about money — which I don’t like to do in this context.”
But he also knows that thinking about money is unavoidable.
“The Harlem Nutcracker” began with enormous promise. In 1996, Byrd was a gutsy and well-respected New York choreographer who wanted to transpose “The Nutcracker” into Harlem, set to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s jazz arrangements of the Tchaikovsky score, with some additional music composed by David Berger.
He also transformed the role of Clara from a little white girl to a black matriarch on the first Christmas without her beloved husband. Instead of a child’s fantasy, Byrd’s “Nutcracker” was the widow’s reverie through her past, including nights with her husband at the Cotton Club. (For that section, Byrd turned the ballet’s “Land of the Sweets” sequence into “Club Sweets.”)
Typically for Byrd, the choreography was syncretic: a scaffolding of ballet, elaborated with influences from modernist choreographers like Merce Cunningham (with whom Byrd worked) and, of course, lots of quick-footed jazz.
The original “Harlem Nutcracker” got an enthusiastic New York Times preview, warm reviews as it toured the country (Entertainment Weekly called it “an instant classic”) and a slot on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
The roving production was also a juggernaut: 500 costumes, 25 dancers, 19 union musicians and seven union stagehands, Byrd said. Halfway into its first six-week tour, the production already cost $1 million — six times the cost of anything Byrd had attempted in the past.
“It was a wonderful experience,” said Gus Solomons Jr., the legendary dancer, choreographer and New York University instructor, who danced in the 1996 production. “But it just about killed Donald, because he had some not-so-brave or not-so-savvy administrators who just kept signing checks — and there wasn’t any money to pay them. But they were afraid to tell Donald ‘we don’t have any money’ because that would unleash a bolt of fury!”
In 1997, Elizabeth Power, executive director for Donald Byrd/The Group (the company behind “Harlem Nutcracker”), told The New York Times: “I should have planned differently once the crisis became apparent … But somehow or other I’d been pulling major rabbits out of hats, so I thought I could keep doing it.”
“It was kind of like building a house,” Byrd said. “You’ve gone: ‘Oh, this is how much this is going to cost.’ But then there are all these things you don’t know — delays that cost money, things you didn’t think of.” On top of that, a commissioning partner withdrew at the last minute (23 years later, Byrd still won’t name the organization) and some potential donors, seeing sold-out houses, assumed the production didn’t need their help.
Checks began to bounce. The musicians’ union threatened legal action. Loans had to be taken out.
“Touring was financially successful, but we were using the profits to pay off debt,” Byrd said. “We were always behind and trying to catch up. It was overwhelming. But people were moved by it. Black audiences felt like it was a holiday show they could own — for them and of them. So it felt like it was worth it.”
By 2001, “The Harlem Nutcracker” had bankrupted Byrd’s New York company. By 2002, Byrd left New York for Seattle, heading west to lead Spectrum.
In retrospect, Byrd said, he’d come to Seattle to reinvent himself — though he didn’t realize that at the time — and he continued to be known as a gutsy choreographer with a national reputation.
Recently, Byrd has also created works for Pacific Northwest Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, received a Doris Duke Artist Award (one of the marquee honors in performing arts) and is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at Frye Art Museum.
His creative world is expansive, and he brings that vast imagination and movement vocabulary to “The Harlem Nutcracker” — but each particular gesture is hyperspecific.
At one point during rehearsal, dancer Fausto Rivera tried his best to fall backward off a table. It was a low table, but high enough to be intimidating.
“Does that work?” Rivera asked after a tentative tumble.
“No,” Byrd said flatly. “That’s not a fall. You stepped back. If you fall, you have to ask yourself this question: ‘Why does he fall?’”
Byrd said the character in that bit was a vain idiot. He told Rivera to keep a Handel lyric in mind (“myself I do adore”), and assigned homework: “Watch Groucho Marx.”
Then Byrd launched into a mini-lecture; about the imperialist aesthetics of ballet (“it’s the perfect manifestation of this idea that European white culture is the best”), about underappreciated pop culture (“the reason it’s not held in such high regard is perhaps because of its influence by people of African descent”) and where the Marx Brothers fit into that puzzle (“it was the Jewish tradition influencing American pop culture — musicians, immigrants”).
Then it was back to the hyperathletic choreography.
Byrd’s references, in choreography and in conversation, are all over the place, Spectrum dancer Nia-Amina Minor said: Balanchine ballets, old films with minstrel scenes, Bob Fosse, Paula Kelly, the Lindy Hop.
“But with Donald, the movement is always tied to a world he makes recognizable,” Minor explained. “And ‘The Nutcracker’ is really about community — in this case, Harlem during a certain era, aspects of how people live and interact with each other, how they move being tied to that time and place. For Donald, everything onstage matters — nothing is thrown away.”
“The Harlem Nutcracker” by Donald Byrd, in a workshop production of the first phase, presented by Spectrum Dance Theater; Dec. 12-15; On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; free-$50 (sliding scale); 206-325-4161, spectrumdance.org