Tapping into Black vernacular tradition in the snow

First-ever tour brings Dorrance Dance’s Nutcracker Suite to Penn Live Arts

2 minute read
About 8-10 dancers or so can be seen on stage, snow falling on/around stage, dancers in all white in mid-movement
Dorrance Dance hits the road with 'Nutcracker Suite.' (Photo by Christopher Duggan.)

What is the sound of snow? At the end of Act I, the George Balanchine Nutcracker offers a glorious vision in winter white as dancers move in kaleidoscopic formations. By contrast, Dorrance Dance, whose tap Nutcracker Suite comes to the Annenberg Center from December 8-9 as part of its first-ever tour, centers its snow scene on quietude and delicate texture. As “genius” grantee Michelle Dorrance shares a sneak peek via Zoom, Duke Ellington’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky score is taking a break, and silence looms—until two dancers upstage pour sand onto Masonite slabs. Their leather-soled shoes draw circles, and we hear the soft granules giving way. “The sound of snow would be something like this,” Dorrance says. “In New York [where the company premiered this work in 2019], the first snow quiets the city,” she says. “We have a reverence for that.” The scene becomes an acapella dialogue as frilly dancers enter and tap jingly rhythms downstage.

Let it snow

Several touchpoints recall the familiar ballet. The snow paves a magical transition for protagonist Clara on the way to her imaginary Land of the Sweets. She has triumphed over the rats—who’ve just caused cartoon chaos, in this version.

Not accidentally, Nutcracker Suite also echoes iconic dancers of the Jazz Age, including practitioners of the “sand dancing” popular in the 1940s. Dorrance’s mentor, Gene Medler of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, connected his students with many of the last great hoofers of that era. “I got to meet the Nicholas Brothers,” Dorrance recalls. “As a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet Harriet “Quicksand” Browne!” Later, as part of Manhattan Tap, Dorrance performed Browne’s Sandman Suite. And she notes that vernacular dancer Mable Lee deeply inspired the Dorrance dancers.

The idea for this production hails from personal history. With Medler and others, Dorrance’s mom, a ballet dancer, co-created a cocktail party “pseudo-Nutcracker” to Ellington’s music when Dorrance was about 11. “I fell in love with the score,” Dorrance recalls.

The Nutcracker ballet, of course, comprises a heritage that, as Dorrance notes, is European-rooted. In this version, she says, “We want to honor a diasporic tradition—a Black vernacular tradition—while calling into the hearts of audience members who know a Nutcracker from somewhere in the past. That is also how the building blocks of tap and vernacular should live in this work. Each of these dancers is brilliant and contemporary, with ideas that come from their own style and from everything that made us the dancers we are.”

Ideally, she says, this Nutcracker Suite is both familiar and new.

What, When, Where

The Nutcracker Suite. Choreography by Michelle Dorrance, Hannah Heller, and Josette Wiggan. Dorrance Dance; presented by Penn Live Arts. $29-$100. Friday, December 8, 2023, at 8pm with a post-show talk with choreographers, and Saturday, December 9, 2023, at 2pm and 8pm, at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or pennlivearts.org.


For information on Penn Live Arts’s accommodations, view their website.

Face masks are optional.

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