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Theater & Dance

Behind the Scenes of Dallas Black Dance Academy’s ‘Espresso Nutcracker’

The beloved Christmas tradition opens on December 11 at The Majestic Theatre.
Courtesy of Amitava Sarkar
It’s a twist on the traditional Nutcracker, and it’s a treat, literally, for all ages. Dallas Black Dance Academy will present The Espresso Nutcracker this Saturday at the Majestic Theater, both live and through a virtual live stream.

The Nutcracker is a holiday staple, performed by thousands of dance companies around the world every Christmas. DBDA’s Espresso Nutcracker shakes up the traditional ballet. It combines Tchaikovsky’s original Nutcracker score with Duke Ellington’s unique “Nutcracker Suite.” Katricia Eaglin, the Academy’s director, started production on the Espresso Nutcracker four years ago. The students perform the bulk of the roles, from the big group numbers to the coveted soloist role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. What started as an in-studio performance became a production at the 300-seat Latino Cultural Center, which then became a sold out performance at the Majestic Theater in 2019.

“It’s very stressful,” Katricia Eaglin says. “I can see the excitement in the kids’ eyes, which is very rewarding. And because this is show week, I can also see the anxiety now.”

Productions of The Nutcracker, which was originally choreographed in 1892 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, typically have a simple storyline. A young Clara attends a Christmas party, battles giant rats with her Nutcracker, and travels through a snowstorm to the Land of the Sweets, where she watches various candies dance. This version follows that same storyline. Choreographically, the Espresso Nutcracker is a little different from the classical version. Not only does it incorporate Ellington’s jazzier suite, it also mixes classical ballet movements with contemporary ballet and jazz. It’s also shorter, clocking in at about an hour in length.

“We spice it up a little,” Eaglin says. “I like that our version is shorter. It’s jazzy, it’s narrated. It seems like it’s a crowd pleaser too, so that’s fun.”

The Espresso Nutcracker even adds a new section to the traditional “divertissements” in the Land of the Sweets. Along with the usual cast of characters, like the Chinese Tea, the Arabian Coffee, and the waltzing Flowers, there is even a trip to Africa. This section uses traditional West African choreography, and what Eaglin calls “easy listening African music.” It’s a fun addition to the typical story, danced by the youngest members of the cast.

Young students from DBDA’s Preprofessional Division carry the performance, with dancers from the Dallas Black Dance Theatre appearing in select supporting roles, like parents in the party scene. Pre-professional students have the chance to perform on a real stage in this production, whether it’s as one of many snowflakes in the Snow Scene or as a soloist in the Land of the Sweets. It’s a chance for them to get to show off their skills. Most Preprofessional Division students at the DBDA take dance classes four to five times a week. Eaglin found that seeing their hard work pay off is gratifying.

“It’s very rewarding for me, watching their growth,” she says. “Being able to offer it to our Dallas community. Presenting students of color en pointe. Providing an opportunity for the preprofessional division to have their own production. Them having an opportunity to come together as a division and present a performance, I think that’s rewarding for me to see, as an instructor, as an Academy Director, and as a former professional.”

Pandemic times have, of course, brought some inevitable changes to the production. The biggest changes are ones of size, both of the cast of dancers and of the audience. Although the Majestic can hold about 1,600 people, it will not be at full capacity. The cast, too, will shrink. Past productions have used about 80 young dancers, but this year will use about 35 dancers. Advanced dancers will perform in multiple roles to make up for the reduced size of the cast.

That’s just one way to test the mettle of these aspiring ballerinas. Along with switching modes between multiple parts, many will perform the rite of passage of dancing en pointe for the first time in front of an audience. The young women who make up the large majority of the Academy dancers will stand, twirl, and balance on their toes. While pointe work is no small feat (or feet), the chance to dance on pointe is a dream for many a young ballerina. Taking your pointe shoes out of the training grounds of the studio and onto the stage is a seminal moment.

“That’s part of the goal of the Espresso Nutcracker, is to give them an opportunity to really flex their skills and really hone their skills en pointe,” Eaglin says.

Some of these students will even get the chance to don tutus and dance leading roles, like the Spanish soloist or the Queen of the Snowflakes. One dancer will take on the huge challenge of the Sugar Plum Fairy, a role which is often considered to be at the pinnacle of principal roles in the classical ballet canon. Along with some of the most iconic music in all of ballet and the dreamy pink tutu, the Sugar Plum Fairy has a difficult variation that even professional dancers find a struggle.

“Sugar Plum and I have been having private rehearsals since August for her to get ready. The talent and potential has been there for years,” Eaglin says. “She’s been in the Academy since she was six years old, so this is a great culminating performance of all of her training, to be able to have this lead role.”

For ballet students, the chance to dance on such a stage is a huge one. The chance for a teenager to dance a leading role is even huger. Nutcracker week, filled with grueling rehearsals on top of regular schoolwork, puts even the littlest of dancers through long hours, itchy costumes, and detailed corrections. It is a hefty challenge, with a wonderful payoff, Eaglin notes.

“I hope that the students know, and maybe even if they don’t realize it now, they’ll look back on this and think, ‘wow, I did something great, and I was just nine. Look at me. I can do anything.’”

Purchase tickets here.