There's a new arrival in Chicago's Nutcrackerland, the holiday theme park that opened officially last week at various venues. Donald Byrd's The Harlem Nutcracker hails from New York, where the full version was first performed in 1996; composer David Berger's score incorporates and adds to the Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite (an arrangement also used by Joel Hall in his longtime holiday confection Nuts & Bolts, a high-spirited, more abstract takeoff on the classic). Berger came up with the concept of a Nutcracker set in Harlem almost 20 years ago; when Byrd embraced the idea in 1989, Berger wrote 90 minutes of new music--and the score is top-notch, both easy in its swing and tricky in its rhythms. Also intriguing is the way Byrd has recast the tale, particularly the love story at The Nutcracker's heart: instead of first love, it's now a saga of old love, lost to death and regained. Byrd's Clara is a widowed grandmother; her prince is her husband of many years, who returns from the dead to revisit the Harlem nightclub of their youth in the 20s and 30s--the Harlem Renaissance. Just as significant as the shift to mature love is setting the ballet's fantasy scenes in the historical past: reality can be as rich and surprising as any pipe dream. The sets and costumes are luscious, and the dancing is varied and often piquant, as when the ballerina in "Chinoiserie" wriggles her way out of her partner's embrace. Tuesday through next Friday, December 11, at 8; next Saturday, December 12, at 3 and 8:30; and next Sunday, December 13, at 1 and 6:30 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; $22-$44. Call 312-902-1500 for tickets, 312-263-3123 for group rates. --Laura Molzahn
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jack Vartoogian.