In 1960, the great Duke Ellington and his frequent collaborater, Billy Strayhorn, released a recording with jazz interpretations of a small portion of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." While it hasn't had the longevity of the ballet, a go-to of the dance world for more than a century, it has become a standard of the jazz canon.
That recording was the catalyst for Jazz Juvenocracy's reconfiguring of the holiday classic, which debuted this weekend at the Glenridge Performing Arts Center.
Artists from the Imaginique Contemporary Ballet Company performed throughout the show, but the emphasis in this production was on the music — and rightly so. The dancers added a colorful and technically adept element, but the weak story line and rough transitions between numbers detracted from the dance and music coming together as a whole.
The seven talented high school musicians of the celebrated combo — pianist Aaron Lehrian (who did most of the arrangements); guitarist Mackenzie Gray; bassist Reed Tucker; trumpet player Bit Risner; saxophone player Thomas Shepard; violinist Mario Santana and drummer Ronan Cowen — started with Ellington's interpretations, then added their own arrangements of other Ellington works, a few holiday standards and additional portions of the Tchaikovsky score. The group met the considerable challenge of turning classical music into jazz and the fresh take on what has almost become elevator music was a delightful changeup.
Less successfully, the group also reinterpreted the familiar storyline, turning the Drosselmeier character (actor Ryan Fitts) into the band's music director, "Clara" (Risner) into the trumpet player, and the dancers into the Nutcracker/nephew (Daniil Smirnov) and the parade of visions Clara meets in her second act dream. Titles projected on a back screen assisted with the storytelling, as well as adding scenic elements (like falling snow and a clock representing the passage of time) to a simple set (by Kate Murdock) designed to replicate a jazz club.
Risner was called to double duty as both musician and dancer, performing pas de deux on pointe with Smirnov in both acts, though she was clearly more confident with her horn as partner. The Imaginique dancers — an accomplished pickup company led by choreographer MaryElizabeth Ameal — drew from diverse dance disciplines; particularly noteworthy were Danny Mitsios and Rania Charalambidou of Columbia City Ballet in the Arabian section; Ameal as a floozy, inebriated "Sugar Rum Cherry,"; Maksim Spasov of Premier Dance Studio as a charismatic presence throughout, and well known local trombone player Greg Nielsen, making his onstage debut as a dancer by partnering two women at once.
With a little refinement and additional direction, this production could become a unique entry in a crowded "Nutcracker" field. That's unlikely to happen, however, given that Jazz Juvenocracy has five seniors graduating this year, all headed off to new locales and musical challenges, and the group is probably headed into a rebuilding phase.
Let's at least hope that their hard work in rearranging and reinterpreting pays off in their new endeavors and that a new generation of gifted musicians is waiting in the wings to take over the Jazz Juvenocracy legacy.