This innovative interpretation combines the beauty and sizzle of Harlem Renaissance nightclubs, the power of true love, and the magic of Christmas. The Harlem Nutcracker tells the story of the recently widowed Clara, whose fear and despair on Christmas Eve melt away during a fantastical journey back in time with the ghost of her beloved husband.
HARLEM NUTCRACKER is an inversion of the traditional Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Byrd’s nutcracker is black, not white. Clara is old, not young. In place of the Land of Sugar, Grandmother Clara goes to the Harlem Renaissance-era nightclub, Club Sweets. The music is Ellington, not Tchaikovsky. The choreography is jazz dancing, not classical ballet.
Here is one of those reviews, from Kirkus
Forget the Sugar Plum Fairy and those syrupy waltzes you can’t get out of your head each December. This is a new Nutcracker, with jazz by Ellington, African-American and Dominican children as party guests, and a Harlem nightclub of the ’20s as the fantasy destination for Clara and her prince. Byrd created his innovative version of the classic Christmas ballet for his own dance company, and the production was skillfully photographed by co-author Kuklin. Here, Clara is an African-American grandmother facing her first Christmas without her beloved husband Gus, who returns to her in dream sequences and again as the transformed nutcracker. The story mirrors the basic plot of the ballet, with the theme here of an aging grandmother’s acceptance of her husband’s passing and her own impending death rather than a young girl’s awakening. The antagonist is not the Mouse King, but a rather terrifying specter of death, who comes for Clara with his accompanying hounds, death maidens, and ghouls. At first, Clara repels the figure of death, but at the end, she is no longer afraid of him, and she exits on the arm of her husband-prince as they “climb the stairway to eternity.” Kuklin, an experienced dance photographer, captures both the expressive movement of the dancers and their subtle emotions in superb photographs with black backgrounds framed in jewel tones of ruby, emerald, and lapis. This powerful story is not just another retold fairy tale; it stands on its own, dancing in the reader’s imagination.
Adapted with information from Susan Kuklin, author of a picture book of the Harlem Nutcracker, illustrated by photos of the production.