Brown Sugar & Black Russians

December 12, 2014

When I was asked to join Ballethnic Dance Company for their 2014-2015 season lead by former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Nena Gilreath and Waverly Lucas, my hesitation was not due to a lack of confidence in the artistic direction. It came rather from one phrase, Nutcracker Season. Now 3 hamstring strains, 4 pairs of ballet shoes, 484 tuck jumps, 9 toe touches, 6 switch leaps 18 bows and 2 minor cases of achilles tendonitis later, I am still happy I decided to say yes. The overall quality and artistic perspective of the company and production surpasses the integrity I have seen in even better known nutcracker productions across the country. Coming from a legacy as great as DTH, the company’s founders wanted to create a company and academy that could bring classical dance and make it relevant to a population whom had little to no previous exposure to the classics. Now it its 21st performance season Ballethnic Dance Company once again brings a beloved classic back to the South.

Big Mama tells the children in the audience the story of The Urban Nutcracker which follows the journey of Sarah and Leroy (danced by real life siblings Daysha Baker and Darius Idlett) through 1940’s Atlanta, Georgia. The first act, which begins in Johnson’s Atlanta home during a Christmas Eve party includes the usual expectations—dancing magical dolls, several families and the presentation of the nutcracker toy to young Sarah. While maintaining the standard of the classic, cultural twists are incorporated to add a flavor to the ballet. Certain elements that are unique to the Ballethnic plot include a duet between Sassy Sadie Doll & Her Sailor (Taylor Ferguson and Robert Graham) in place of the more classical mechanical dolls, as well as the Reggae Rag Dolls duet (Indya Childs and Kevin Anderson). Gilreath and Lucas also include certain comical changes like adding a rowdy “Country” family to the invited guests, as well as the Flirtatious Widower who wears a bright red wig and shamelessly walks away from her 7 children to talk to the different male characters on stage. Professor Issac takes the place of the traditional Drosseylmeyer who brings little Sarah her nutcracker gift that later transforms into the Chocolatier (Savery Morgan) who, along with his Brown Sugar (Brandy Carwile), escorts young Sarah and Leroy through The Land Of the Snow to The Land of the Sweets.

In Act II, the festivities continue and the two siblings are graciously entertained by different characters. The second act showcases how the artistic changes made successfully shape the culturally relevant feel of the production. The best example is the crowd favorite Black Russian choreography and music, where the traditional Tchaikovsky score is replaced with an exciting up-tempo tribal drum track. The trio of company men open the piece by performing 16 revolving consecutive tuck jumps over 10” hand held ropes reminiscent of the jumping contests of the men of the Maasai tribe in Kenya and Tanzania. Later in the evening eight of the strongest girls from the academy take the stage along with company apprentice Dominique Simone as Coca-Cola girls who replace the more traditional Marzipan with the Atlanta based beverage (as well as redefining the image of beauty associated with an older american pin-up girl aesthetic). I was fortunate enough to help complete the evening by performing Waltz of the Flowers as the Urban Gardener along side Taylor Ferguson (Cast II) before company veterans Savery Morgan and Brandy Carwile finished the night with the Brown Sugar Grand Pas de Duex.

All injuries aside, the overall experience was a pleasant one. And the production was not without hardship. One of the company dancers suffered an injury to his achilles tendon that sidelined him 3 days before the production. And had it not been for outstanding sports massage therapists, I would almost certainly not be able to walk down a flight of stars today. Moving forward with the performance season I’m grateful and excited to perform more of the company rep in the future. And I hope that when the Macy’s commercials air after Thanksgiving, the music does not give me a panic attack.


-Robert Graham
Freelance Dancer, Writer

Brown Sugar & Black Russians