Speakeast with - Ballethnic Dance Company co-founder Nena Gilreath
Ballethnic Dance Company co-founders (and spouses) Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas II referred to their homegrown take on Tchaikovsky, Urban Nutcracker, as "A Holiday Tradition in the Making" when they first staged the ballet in 1992. Urban Nutcracker has subsequently become an Atlanta tradition and returns Nov. 21-23 at the Ferst Center for the Arts with performances that will undoubtedly be more lavish than the initial staging. Creative Loafing's Best of Atlanta Critic's Pick for Best Dancer in 2000, Gilreath reflects on Urban Nutcracker's lasting appeal.
What was it like when you first performed Urban Nutcracker?
We first did it in 1992, back when we could afford nothing, so it was slim pickings for everything. We'd go to yard sales every weekend to look for baby dolls for the party scene. When we'd get a better doll, we'd throw a more raggedy one out. And we didn't have any gowns, so we had students bring in their prom dresses. For our first performance, we only presented Act Two, because we didn't have the resources to stage the whole thing.
Why do people respond to it?
From the first performance we had really enthusiastic audiences. A lot of people had seen The Nutcracker before, but seeing it this way gives them more to relate to. It takes place on Auburn Ave., and it's narrated by Big Momma, so everyone felt immediately at ease because they have a "Big Momma" in their family. Of the different Nutcracker productions, I think we have the best party scene, because the characters are very bold and defined. We have a flirt, a drunk who's tipsy, we have a father who's greedy and keeps grabbing food, like turkey legs and more.
Does the show use only the Tchaikovsky score?
There's African drum music for the licorice sticks – the "Black Russians." The soldiers have taps on, so they tap. In the Ballethnic style, there are blends of other dance forms. The Tchaikovsky score is a great introduction to classical music. People have heard it even if they don't know it. Typically after Urban Nutcracker, we get quite a few new students. Some members of our company grew up seeing it: One saw it when he was in middle school, when we did it at Morehouse College. You never know how you'll impact someone's life.
How has the show changed in the past 16 years?
The grid is pretty much the same. There have been minor changes that, unless you're a Ballethnic expert, you wouldn't know the difference. In our observation, when we first started Urban Nutcracker, children were smaller. When we got into the late 1990s, children got bigger and bigger, until their costumes didn't fit, so we had to put them into storage. Now, children are small again, so we've gotten the old costumes out again. I think it's because of the way people eat. Sometimes, I think it's not all bad when times get tight – people stay at home and cook more.
Has anything memorable gone wrong with the show?
One of the things that was pretty weird happened three or four years ago. The mirror balls we use in the snow scene got hung up in the rafters, and the force tore them apart so they fell to the stage. This was right after one of the rat scenes, so some of the rats came out, still in character, and pretended to eat them and took them away. Afterward, people said, "I liked the new rat part" – they didn't know it was a mistake.
Ballethnic puts a great deal of emphasis on education. Is it hard to convince talented young people to pursue classical dance?
I think it's always been hard, and it might be even harder now because there are so many dance shows on TV that make dancing seem easy and quick. They don't know that they really have to commit to something to become excellent. They're not going to be able to just jump up and have these amazing moves.
What is Ballethnic doing next?
Our next big project will be Jazzy Sleeping Beauty for 2009, another new version of a classic story. Once the curtain comes down on Urban Nutcracker, we start fundraising. We'll be performing at half-time of one of the Hawks games.