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'The Nutcracker:' Modern, African Dance to Celebrate Kwanzaa - 2001-12-18

New York's Harlem School of the Arts is presenting a unique version of the classic Christmas ballet, "The Nutcracker." Unlike the traditional 19th century version, this performance incorporates modern and African dance. It celebrates the seven day African-American holiday, Kwanzaa, which starts on December 26.

The dancers move across the floor with spins and lifts in this jazzy number that opens the "African Nutcracker." For the fourth year, the Harlem School of the Arts, which provides artistic training to students, many of whom are African-American, is presenting a unique interpretation of the Tchaikovsky ballet.

Instead of commemorating Christmas, the two lead characters explore the roots of African-American culture. The School's dance director, Krystal Hall-Glass says the "African Nutcracker" marks Kwanzaa, a holiday founded in 1966, celebrating the values of family, community responsibility, commerce and self-improvement. "The 'African Nutcracker,' what we do with it, as opposed to the traditional 'Nutcracker' which tells a story from the Christmas perspective. We tell a holiday story from the perspective of Kwanzaa. We interpret the seven principles of Kwanzaa through the story that is taken by Medina and Malik, the children who break the nutcracker. So they actually start in current times, but they travel back through Africa and then they come forward through time so we stop off in different locations and we explain the different principles of Kwanzaa," she says.

Mrs. Hall-Glass has been working with the 11 to 21 year old dancers for more than three months, in preparation for what is a technically and emotionally challenging show.

Like the original "Nutcracker," it features two children. But in this production, no nutcracker comes to life, nor does the dream sequence bring the audience to a magical winter wonderland or the Kingdom of the Sweets.

Instead Medina and Malik embark on a journey to Africa in a tale of their ancestors, told by a traditional African Djeli, or storyteller.

By the end of the first act, the dancers are sweating and out of breath.

They move swiftly and energetically to the sound of African drums in choreographed numbers of modern, jazz, West-African, Calypso and Afro-Brazilian dance. Mrs. Hall-Glass says the blend of styles represents the complex African-American history that followed the slave trade. "There are some things we are not taught in schools that we have to find out and discover through other means of education, which might be through the arts, or even just in terms of interaction with people that bring different information to the table. So it kind of gives us a chance to bring that all together and still put in pieces of our puzzle, historically," she says.

Sharonnie Spencer is a university student who once trained at the Harlem School of the Arts. Now, she has returned to dance in the "African Nutcracker." Ms. Spencer, who is African-American says the dance evokes a personal emotion."With the African 'Nutcracker', each piece tells a story. So I may give a certain energy when I'm doing an African piece than when I'm doing ballet or hip hop or jazz. I think the strongest piece for me to do is the African piece because I think about Africa and things that have been going on for centuries, and it's just a strong style of dance," she says.

11-year old Brittany, who plays the lead role of Medina, can dance for hours. She says she prefers the "African Nutcracker" to the original ballet."This 'African Nutcracker' is more exciting. There are more drums, different types of music than the original 'Nutcracker,' which is just ballet. It's very boring. This one is more exciting," she says.

Choreographer Krystal Hall-Glass agrees. She says, she was inspired to breathe new life into a ballet, which everybody knows and performs in the same way every year.