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Artist Stories

Bringing Ellington’s Nutcracker Swing to Life

December 2022 — The Nutcracker Swing is an enchanting and jazzy interpretation of the classic holiday ballet, The Nutcracker, created in 1892 by famed Russian composer, Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In 1960, the great American composer and bandleader, Duke Ellington, recorded an album entitled The Nutcracker Suite, featuring jazz arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s work created by Ellington and his long-time collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

In 1991, award-winning dancer/choreographer Lula Elzy conceptualized and set original modern dance pieces to the Ellington/Strayhorn score. Elzy named this work The Nutcracker Swing. The New Orleans premiere featured a live jazz orchestra accompanying her dance corps. Since that rousing debut, additional performances have been presented nearly every year – to the continuing delight of audiences and critics, one of whom called The Nutcracker Swing “a new confectionary twist to a holiday tradition.”

Some Background on Nutcracker Swing Choreographer, Lula Elzy

Lula Elzy is a distinguished choreographer, director, educator, and dancer. She is the founder and artistic director of the award-winning Lula Elzy New Orleans Dance Theatre (LEDT), which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021.

Ms. Elzy was faculty member for nearly seventeen years as a modern dance teacher at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), during the time JazzArts Charlotte President and COE Lonnie Davis attended.

Among her many awards, Ms. Elzy is the recipient of the Presidential Scholars Distinguished Teachers Award in the Performing Arts ,the New Orleans Mayor’s Arts Award, and the Big Easy Classical Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ms. Elzy’s film and stage credits include choreography for the award-winning film, Mudbound, the HBO series,Tremé, Interview with a Vampire and Angel Heart. She has toured Europe as choreographer for Porgy and Bess, West Side Story and Cabaret.

Presently, Ms. Elzy is an artist-in-residence for the pre-professional student organization, Muse Machine, in Dayton, Ohio. She was also nominated for a Tony award for Excellence in Theatre Education for her choreographic and artistic works with the Muse Machine. Elzy continues to regularly produce distinctive multidisciplinary performances and exhibitions in collaboration with several of the New Orleans’ leading artists and creative forces.

Lula Elsy describes her vision for Nutcracker Swing

Originally, what was it about this music that attracted you particularly, and what was your vision for it?

I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was talking with Victor Goines, saxophonist and composer with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and mentioned how much I wish there was something we could do around Christmas instead of the usual. He thought about it and said Duke Ellington had an arrangement, and then sent it to me. Wow. As we began talking with folks about the idea, we needed a way to refer to it, so I just started calling it Nutcracker Swing. There was no official decision, that’s just how people started referring to it. I laugh about it, but that’s how it all started.

Our original idea was to make something different. So we set the performance up like a 1930s and 40s radio broadcast in the Big Band era. The orchestra would be seated and visible on the stage. The audience would be there, and the dancers would come out. For choreography, I worked with several folks, so not just me, to make sure every dance is different. Each number has a different flavor to it.

I understand there is a special connection between you and Lonnie Davis and this music?

Lonnie was at student at NOCCA when I was a teacher there. Our music director happened to be her jazz teacher, Clyde Kerr Jr. Clyde made all his students at the arts school come to all the performances. I didn’t know this at the time, but Lonnie came, learned about the music, and then would bring her whole family. So as JazzArts Charlotte was looking for something new to do for Christmas many years ago, Lonnie made the connection with that dance teacher, me.

What can we expect from the show?

If you are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s music, you will hear the standard melodies you know so well. For example, Sugar Plum Fairy is the original, and Ellington renamed it Sugar Rum Cherry. We’ve brought back a piece of music people thought they knew, and now have an opportunity to hear again in a whole other format. You have this classical music and jazz music coming together, and realize that music is music.

The funniest thing is that it often surprises people that there is dance to most of the tunes. They come to hear Ellington’s music, and then are surprised, even back when it had been presented by the dance theater. But in the time period of swing that the music was written in, anytime there was big band, there was dance These two art forms were always together.

Duke Ellington only did arrangements of the songs that are danced to in The Nutcracker Suite. So for example, The Russian Dance, the Walz of the Flowers, the Arabesque Cookie (the Arabian Dance), which by the way he arranged based on his experiences as an American Ambassador in the Far East. When we were selecting which ones to dance to, we wanted to make sure the dance complimented, and never competed, with the musicians on stage. So songs like Peanut Butter Brigade, which features different musician soloists, does not have dance.

What makes this special from a music and dance perspective?

Every dance is different. There is classical, Lindy hop, modern and jazz. Dancers will be incorporating all these techniques of dance style.

In jazz, musicians have the right to solo over a melody or improvise. So dancers can’t rely on typical charts and a recording. Every dancer has to know the music well. In Ellington’s notes, he has written “lead trumpet solo”, rather than notes. So dancers are prepared to interact with the orchestra by singing “da Ta da” to identify where we are in the music and dance. It’s a unique experience that helps us work together.

Years ago, when we came up with this, I was so lucky spoke to Ruth (Duke’s sister) and Mercer Ellington (Duke’s son). Mercer’s words were – thank you so much because everyone should be listening to what my father put out there.

JazzArts Charlotte is thrilled to present this unique and special regional premiere this weekend for the biggest JAZZ ROOM holiday edition yet, and can’t wait to see you there.  Tickets are almost gone!


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