http://tampa.creativeloafing.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid:39434 Hot Chocolate The scene inside the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg on this Monday night looks like the start of a gym class -- but with drumming. Lots of drumming. Around 75 kids, nearly all of them African-American, ranging in age from 2 to late teens, jostle and joke and chatter. An African-American woman tries to direct traffic amid the din, a din created by seven young men on an adjacent stage pounding out dense, syncopated rhythms on an array of African drums. Within minutes, the youngsters have, as if magically, broken into five lines. They dance forward in groups -- jumping, kicking, twisting, shimmying, lunging -- in exuberant, raggedly synchronized movements culled from a tribal dance that's native to Guinea in West Africa. The woman stands amid them, looking on, her face the picture of calm. And the drums never stop. It's loud. Hip-hop concert loud. So begins a rehearsal for the "Africa" sequence of The Chocolate Nutcracker, which is just a couple of weeks away. "I'm about 89 percent done," says the woman, Jai Hinson, with a smile. "But I'm not worried; I can get 'em into shape." She's the leader of Dundu Dolé, an African dance/music troupe in St. Petersburg. She's also among a handful of choreographers who bring this Nutcracker to life. The "Africa" sequence is among the liveliest in a series of dance pieces that also includes jazz, tap, swing, funk, hip-hop, Brazilian and plenty of traditional ballet. The Chocolate Nutcracker was created by dancer/choreographer LaVerne Reed, who first staged the show in 1994 on the campus of the University of Southern California. This is its eighth year at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The ballet is produced by the center's educational wing, the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, with first-rate sets, costumes and lighting. A dance recital this is not. The Chocolate Nutcracker is an African-American-inspired rendering of the traditional Nutcracker ballet that is so ubiquitous on stages during the holidays. In addition to Clearwater, venues in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, are staging it this season, too. (Over the years, it's also been produced in Miami, Philadelphia and at the University of Maryland.) Ruth Eckerd's is the only version that eschews narration, letting dance and music tell the story of a young girl whooshed off into various fantasy lands with the help of a magic nutcracker doll shaped like a prince. But Chocolate, as those in the production refer to it, is much more than six performances of a multicultural dance suite. It's an educational opportunity, a community builder, an arts outreach, a discipline molder, a unifier. It serves the same larger function in all of the cities, Reed says. "That's the thread between all the shows. That's the mission." "It's pride in belonging," says Lakeisha Henderson, who dances in the production with her daughter Laisha, while her son Dwaine drums. "It's belonging to a unique group." More than 300 people, most of them kids, but including quite a few adults -- professionals mixing with amateurs, serious dancers with neophytes -- work from September to December to bring it off. Most of the dancers live in the primarily black Midtown section of St. Petersburg, although in recent years cast members have joined from northern Pinellas County and Tampa. A good portion of the participants come from lower economic strata. Putting on The Chocolate Nutcracker every December is a daunting task, but if viewing a DVD of last year's show is any indication, it all comes together as an exhilarating experience. Many of the youngsters return year after year. The McCrae sisters -- Lasandra, 18, and Phadra, 16 -- have participated in every Chocolate Nutcracker at Eckerd Hall. At first, they found the dance moves in the African section difficult to master; now they're second nature. "You can't be thinking about the steps," Phadra says. "You just have to feel the music and let it come out." The McCraes are joined by their cousins, NaKena Cromartie, who attends Gibbs High School, and her older brother Tynell, a freshman at St. Pete College. "We're military children," Tynell says, "and we came down from Mobile, Alabama. There's no dancing there." Upon arriving in St. Pete four years ago, they immediately signed up for Chocolate. Tynell is one of a handful of boys in the "Africa" sequence. What the guys lack in numbers, they make up for in athleticism and sheer spirit. Recruiting males is difficult, Hinson says. While the McCrae sisters say their girlfriends "think it's cool," the boys in the ballet encounter more negative peer response. They slough it off, though, buoyed by their commitment to the group and their love of dance. "Some people see something different and they're scared of it," says lead drummer Nico Warren of the guys who pick on him. "I don't care what they say." Warren's involvement in Chocolate and Dundu Dolé has profoundly shaped the way he looks at the world (see sidebar). While the levels of African consciousness certainly vary in this group of kids, and the rehearsal is not a polemic on Afrocentrism, certain messages get across. During a rare break in the dancing and drumming, Darius Carter, the leader of the drum ensemble, addresses the kids. He tells them that when children in Africa do this dance, many of them don't have enough to eat or a place to live. "They dance like it's their last chance," he says, his voice rising. "I want you to dance as though you're not gonna be here tomorrow. Are we clear?" A shrill cheer fills the room. "Are we clear?" The kids cheer louder. Everyone knows The Nutcracker comes around this time of year -- even those of us who've never seen it recognize strains of Tchaikovsky's music and know that it involves Sugarplum Fairies -- but the history of the ballet isn't as well-known. It dates back to the early 1800s, when author E.T.A. Hoffman penned "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," a morbid story not intended for children. The piece was later revised by French writer Alexander Dumas Pére in a more kid-friendly version, which drew the interest of Marius Petipa, the senior ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet. In 1891, he commissioned Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to compose a score for a full-length Nutcracker, which debuted the following year in St. Petersburg, Russia. There the ballet stayed until 1934, when it appeared in London. Six years later, it showed up for the first time in the U.S., in a shortened version presented by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It wasn't until 1954 that choreographer George Balanchine created his famous full-length Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet. Over the years, The Nutcracker became an entrenched seasonal tradition, and thus ripe for appropriation. Mark Morris' affectionate '60s-era sendup The Hard Nut is probably the only version that features a Barbie Dream House, while Nut/Cracked, by David Parker and the Bang Group (seen last week at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) adds a dose of disco and bubble wrap. LaVerne Reed, meanwhile, saw the need for a version that spoke to her own life. As a young girl growing up in South Philadelphia in the '50s, Reed studied dance and even landed some smaller roles in The Nutcracker in the Pennsylvania Ballet. "But I was never afforded the luxury of being cast as [lead character] Claire [Clara in the original]," she says from her home in Manhattan. "I always said that when I grew up I was going to create and direct my own Nutcracker where kids of color, African-Americans, Hispanics, girls and boys could see themselves on stage in leading roles." After being educated in dance and theater at Howard and George Washington universities, and leading a national dance touring company, Reed, at 39, set out to remake The Nutcracker. It took her five years to bring it to the stage. Her narrative loosely follows the original, but the opening party scene is set in 1950s Harlem. Instead of battling The Mouse King and his troops, Claire squares off with snakes; starlight (generated by a hidden disco ball) replaces snowflakes; rather than touch down in Candyland or the Land of the Snow Queen, Claire stops in Africa, Brazil, Egypt and on a street corner where a jazz bassist and saxophonist play a duet. The idea, Reed says, was to re-imagine The Nutcracker with cultural touchstones that better resonate with minority audiences and incorporate more popular dance styles than pointy-toe ballet. That said, the production is not exclusionary -- white children are welcome to participate, and many do. The Marcia P. Hoffman Center pays Reed a flat-fee royalty, but they get more than just the rights to The Chocolate Nutcracker. Reed attends auditions, collaborates with choreographers and stays in touch with the production during every phase, everywhere it's done. In turn, Eckerd Hall and the Hoffman Institute throw considerable money and effort into making the production top-notch. The center has put a major emphasis on growing the project, which they say draws Eckerd Hall's most diverse crowds of the year. One of Reed's former students, Paulette Johnson, was the Hoffman Institute's community coordinator in the '90s and exposed then-director Mark Alexander to the ballet. The center jumped into the project with both feet. In 2000, The Chocolate Nutcracker featured 75 kids. A couple of years later, Joyce B. Wehner, current education director at the Hoffman Institute, committed to updating the staging and costumes, as well as hiring a lighting designer. The community outreach intensified as well. Last year, more than 400 dancers and musicians participated in the run, which proved a bit unwieldy, so the cast was scaled back this year by about a hundred. The number of performances has grown to six: Two for students, and four that are open to the public. Eckerd Hall staff says all those shows come close to selling out. "The synergy between the audience and the stage is unbelievable," Wehner says. "The crowd walks away feeling like they've undergone a real experience." Reed couldn't be more pleased with the Eckerd Hall people. "They have my heart," she enthuses. "The costuming is the best. You'd think they were lighting Le Miz. They don't skimp." Monica Richardson, 22, a petite professional dancer/choreographer, first played Claire in Miami, and then, that same year, starred in the Clearwater premiere. She's equally adept at hip-hop moves as she is at a grand jeté. This year, she took on the task of coaching throngs of kids through many of the dance routines, as well as choreographing a number of sequences. She drives up every weekend from her home in South Florida. "My father's black and my mother's Cuban," she says. "I'm mixed. It's very cool that the kids can see pros like myself, a person of color, do something positive. It says there is an opening for them. They can make this happen if they want to. It's very different than the regular Nutcracker. It has soul. The kids can relate to it." Still, very few of these young people are on a professional dance track, so local organizers tout broader-ranged benefits: The children get exposed to peers from different backgrounds and different locales (one girl has come down from Columbus to be part of the Clearwater shows), and some form lasting friendships; they come together as a large, disparate group and work toward a common goal; they have fun and learn something about their heritage along the way. And yes, there is that element of keeping kids off the streets. Hinson of Dundu Dolé, who has worked with The Chocolate Nutcracker since the outset, says, "This [project] has spared a lot of kids from negative stuff. A lot of youngsters, if they didn't have this, something to latch onto, to give them a sense of pride and accomplishment, they would just be hanging out on the street."