Let’s jazz it up a bit

‘The Nutcracker’ takes on new life

YOUNGSTOWN — Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn replace Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as Ballet Western Reserve adds a Jazz Age twist to a holiday favorite.

The dance company and the Youngstown State University Jazz Ensemble are collaborating on a production of “The Nutcracker,” which will be staged Friday and Sunday at Stambaugh Auditorium.

BWR Artistic Director Jacquelynn Cunningham said, “I wanted to change it up a bit. It’s always been in the back of my mind to use the score from Duke Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite.” And I’ve been a fan of Glenn Miller and knew he had some music that was appropriate. That was the first stepping stone.”

However, Cunningham wanted to do the full ballet with a jazz score, and Ellington and Strayhorn only did nine movements for their suite. Through mutual friends, Cunningham began working with YSU Professor Kent Engelhardt, who will lead the jazz ensemble.

“She and I went back and forth researching this and started putting some things together,” Engelhardt said. “Not all of the music is directly related to ‘The Nutcracker’ but it all fits into the character of each of the scenes.”

Engelhardt contacted a friend with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and they purchased the arrangements for a couple of the pieces the orchestra created for its “Harlem Nutcracker” as well as incorporating works by Count Basie and other pieces by Ellington and Strayhorn.

“All in all, it’s our version of it,” he said. “Some of the the things we’re doing with it, no one else has done. Jacki, she is a creative force. She always has another idea.”

This “Nutcracker” won’t just sound different; it also will look different. Inspired by the music, Cunningham has some of her dancers in flapper dresses and finger wave wigs. Instead of a toy soldier accompanying the ballerina doll that Drosselmyer brings out at the party, it’s a Charlie Chaplin doll who executes moves inspired by the silent film star. And that party will include guests like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

“We wanted to bring that 1920s feel,” she said. “Who were the icons back in that time?”

Even with the changes, Cunningham said the story remains in tact and will be familiar to anyone who has seen the ballet, which has been staged in the U.S. more than any other.

“I don’t think anyone will be disappointed,” she said. “You still get that ‘Nutcracker’ feel.”

The production will feature about 75 performers on stage. The cast features Emilia Aey, Emilee Ague, Leslie Barrett, Eileen Beck, Lee Beitzel, Nina Boyer, Serenity Boatwright, Francesca Cisine, Michael Cotton, Hazel Cunningham, Jackie Cunningham, Megan Delaney, Emily Dew, Ella Dill, Lena Dill, Nina Dill, Catherine Dunham, Ella Economos, Faith Fisher, Annika Hileman, Kyla Hogan, Elizabeth Horkey, Gabriella Howe, Anastasia Hull, Amanda Hvizdos, Maricel Jewell, Caroline Knight, Caroline LaCusky, Cristina LaRocca, Mikel Lewis, Isabella Loccisano, Hunter Lombard, Ryan Luther, Isabella Magura, Alexis McCrea, Lila McCrea, Alexis Milligan, Brooklyn Moran, Paige Nevels, Reagan Nevels, Leah Nock, Emily Pasquale, Lucia Perry, Shaliah Peeples, Katie Philibin, Chase Picino, Kennedy Pickard, Alexandra Popovich, Amelia Preisel, Makenna Raphington, Allison Riddle, Addiosn Ring, JiAnna Robinson, Kyra Ryznar, Maeryn Ryznar, Guilana Sebastiani, Kellsie Shadowens, Zoe Shaffer, Ava Shapiro, Tamara Sigler, Nadia Simms, Madelyn Sipusic, Samantha Smit, Lily Susak, Della Toliver, Charles Turnage, Reese Urbach, Isabella Ury, Isabella Vargas, Mara Vargo, Anastasia Walker, Maggie Wardle, Susie Wardle, Lydia Wells, Larry White, Maria Wilson and Riley Wilson.

Engelhardt will lead 22 musicians in the jazz ensemble.

“That’s a little larger than usual,” he said. “We had to bring some people in for flute, piccolo parts and some very difficult clarinet parts. Some of the music that Billy Strayhorn wrote, sometimes it’s very lightly scored. Very few instruments play at the same time, maybe three or four. Those kinds of composers, like Ellington and Strayhorn, they like to think of the orchestra as a palette of colors. You mix this color and that color and come up with something else.”

Accompanying a ballet will be a challenge for the young musicians in the ensemble and will be beneficial in their future endeavors.

“Whatever tempos they’ve been rehearsing with, that has to be locked in,” Engelhardt said. “It has to start here, stay here and end here at this particular tempo. If you go too slow or too fast, they (the dancers) could injure themselves … It will be a great learning experience for everyone.”