If you are looking for the perfect Christmas album, cue up (or queue up) The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. This 1960 version arranged by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn adds new energy to old Pete Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic. When Ellington was in the studio, he explained to Columbia Records that “I thought Tchaikovsky to Strayhorn to Ellington might be a pretty good parlay.” Starting this week at The Joyce Theater, and running through January 5, the tap choreographer Michelle Dorrance continues the parlay with the premiere of her own Nutcracker set to Ellington’s recording, an album she says she has been listening to since childhood.
As America’s original dance form—and arguably its most profound—tap is the synthesis of history in movement, the sound of the melting pot of America boiling over. Its syncopated athleticism alone is thrilling. Just watch the Nicholas Brothers in 1943’s Stormy Weather—a routine shot in one take—to witness what Fred Astaire thought was the best dancing ever filmed.
A white jig reforged in the black diaspora, tap connects us to the antebellum South through minstrelsy, vaudeville, and Hollywood. This fraught past has more than once sent tap through cycles of death and revival. Its great practitioners have therefore been its great revivalists bringing the form to new audiences, from Master Juba to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Peg Leg Bates to Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover to, now, Michelle Dorrance.
While Glover bears the weight of history in his tap, Dorrance dances over its surface through satire. Her routines are Busby Berkeley channeled through Bugs Bunny. A certain ironic detachment may just be the only way a white woman, dancing with a mostly white company, can reach the soul, or sole, of tap.
For her opening week at the Joyce, Dorrance and her company, Dorrance Dance, paired the new Nutcracker with All Good Things Come to an End. This 2018 work set to the music of Fats Waller tells its own history of tap through vaudeville-like routines—all danced, the show lets us know, by the last four people on earth. After sweeping the theater in radioactive gear made of papier-mâché, the tappers perform a cane dance in “Cain and Abel” and shiver-tap down a river raft in “The Myth of the American Dream.” The dancer Josette Wiggan-Freud’s ingenious platform tap, in which a scarf becomes a noose, fuses the history of Jim Crow and Howard “Sandman” Sims together in one harrowing spectacle.
Dorrance approaches her Nutcracker with ironic remove. She riffs on Balanchine as much as Tchaikovsky. She also makes the most of Ellington’s swinging but short recording. The holiday party is transformed into a hopping Lindy. The “Waltz of the Snowflakes” becomes an evocative and silent sand dance. The Sugar Plum Fairy also becomes the Sugar Rum Cherry (as named in Ellington’s recording). Wiggan-Freud and her sequined Sugar Blossoms update the dance from a saccharine treat to an intoxicating tonic. Her brother and dance partner, Joseph Wiggan, fills out an extraordinary Cavalier. Their toe-tapping pas de deux would make Balanchine proud—ballet’s greatest choreographer, after all, once worked with the Nicholas Brothers on Broadway.
And yet, something here seems rushed, especially in the divertissements. Clara is played by one of the tallest men in the company. While the miscasting gets laughs, the satirical update strips the original ballet of its youthful innocence. If we can’t see the divertissements through the true eyes of childhood, the story arc is lost. The magical dances become mere punchlines, with little need for elaboration.
Michelle Dorrance is onto something with this inspired concept. I just hope she gets to retake the exam with more time on the test. A tap-dance Nutcracker continues the great synthetic potential of the form. Now, just further stretch out Ellington’s thirty-minute Suite and find a Shirley Temple to dance the Clara, and we’ll have a swinging sensation that’s still alcohol-free.