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You've Never Seen a 'Nutcracker' Like This

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Dec 18, 2019

Tap genius Michelle Dorrance puts her stamp on the famous Christmas ballet


There is a cornucopia of Nutcrackers twirling all over New York this holiday season, but none as exuberant as Michelle Dorrance's tap-dancing take on the Christmas staple. Set to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's jazzy interpretation of Tchaikovsky's iconic score, The Nutcracker Suite is the largest work Dorrance's namesake company has ever undertaken, with a cast of 21. It's the centerpiece of the troupe's three-week engagement at the Joyce Theater, which kicked off on December 17.

Dorrance has been a fan of Ellington and Strayhorn's 1960 adaptation since hearing her mother, dancer and choreographer M'Liss Dorrance, use it for a performance at North Carolina's Ballet School of Chapel Hill. "I was really taken with the arrangements," she says, words tumbling out of her mouth as quickly as her feet fly on stage. "It's masterful, playful, surprising and endlessly creative. I love the choices that they made. I'm such a huge fan of the textures and melodic juxtapositions and instrumentation that they used. That collaboration was a match made in heaven."

When the Joyce commissioned Dorrance to create a new work during her holiday run, she immediately thought of that recording. "I thought, damn, if we're ever going to do a Nutcracker, this might be the time. But the only way I was going to do it was if Josette Wiggan-Freund agreed to be the Sugar Rum Cherry, which was Duke's answer to the Sugar Plum Fairy. When I listened to that tune, Josette was the person I saw. She embodies vernacular jazz and tap dance with a masterful understanding. There's no one like her."

Wiggan-Freund and Hannah Heller co-created this world premiere with Dorrance; both dance in the piece, with the former taking on Clara's mother and the Sugar Rum Cherry, and the latter the Rat (instead of Mouse) King. Dorrance promises the piece includes recognizable elements of the classic ballet, albeit with the action compressed and some notable changes, like gender switches (Clara is danced by Leonardo Sandoval, the Nutcracker by Brittany DeStefano) and a fluidity between reality and fantasy. "We have our own twists and our own on take on things," she says. "There isn't necessarily an obvious shift into the dream world. That's what I'm really excited about. You don't see Clara go to sleep. The Nutcracker isn't introduced as a small doll, it's introduced as a human being. We're asking the audience to use their imagination at all times, and I think that's one of the most important things we can do."

Usually, Dorrance Dance performs to live music, but for The Nutcracker Suite she's making an exception. "We're using Duke's original recording," she says. "I've had the CD since I was a kid—I think I stole it from my mom."

Given the demands of working with such a large ensemble, Dorrance is not dancing in the piece, since she's busy "wrangling the chaos," as she puts it. "You've got to keep it moving. There are so many problems to solve, and there's so much to learn from it. You have to be willing to drive a ship that's about to tip over but know that it's not going to."

Although Dorrance Dance is presenting a different program each week, The Nutcracker Suite is featured in all of them. Another highlight is the New York premiere of All Good Things Must Come to an End, co-created by Dorrance, Heller, Wiggan-Freund and Melinda Sullivan, and performed to Fats Waller tunes. "It's post-apocalyptic vaudeville, if there is such a thing," she says. "I think we're adjusting to some things that we're all dealing with culturally." Harlequin & Pantalone and Lessons in Tradition, both featuring Tony-winning neo-vaudevillian Bill Irwin, are also on the lineup during the last week.

Dorrance values collaboration, and she describes the crafting of both these works as a true give-and-take. "One of us will start a phrase, the other will finish it," she says. "We'll change things as we're working. There's a different language when you're working with dear friends in an intimate space. There's a care and an open-mindedness. I want the process to continue to be challenging, inspiring and supportive. It constantly teaches me things—both technically and as a human being."

Not long after Dorrance wraps up her Joyce run, she'll jump into her next project: her Broadway debut as choreographer for Flying Over Sunset, a new musical with songs by Tom Kitt and Michael Korie, and a book and direction by James Lapine. She describes her life these days as "nonstop," but she wouldn't have it any other way.


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Josette Wiggan-Freund in Dorrance Dance's The Nutcracker Suite. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.