When Delma Isles "defected" from the world of traditional ballet and founded Momentum Dance Company in 1982, the last thing on her mind was staging a version of the Nutcracker. Her troupe was and still is steadfastly dedicated to modern dance, and a ballet set to a Tchaikovsky score is anything but modern. It didn't matter if Isles, who began dance lessons at age six, spent a good deal of her childhood and young adult years performing as a cast member in the holiday favorite. "I danced almost every female role in Nutcracker except the Arabian," she recounts. "Because I was a blonde, they would never let me do that role. I didn't have that exotic look."
Isles's appearance may have seemed ordinary, but her taste in music was not. A big fan of jazz, she learned of a 1958 reinterpretation of the Russian composer's Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn. That was five years ago. She then began an extensive search for the long-out-of-print recording, which she found through the help of a friend who lo-cated a collector. "I was really taken by it because the music was so clever," Isles says about her first encounter with the work. "It takes the Tchaikovsky themes that everybody knows ad nauseam and reworks them in Ellington's style. It comes at you from a different point of view. It had to be danced to."
Two years later it was. Accompanied by a fifteen-piece orchestra, Momentum premiered Hot and Spicy -- Duke Ellington's Nutcracker, a whimsical hourlong piece conceived and choreographed by Isles, to positive reviews. Along with shorter holiday-theme works (Judas Maccabeus set to Handel's score, Harbinger of Light performed to an Italian baroque Christmas concerto by Torelli, Politics of Charity danced to music by Vivaldi, and Christmas Carol, a solo set to a Tartini tune), Hot and Spicy will be performed this Sunday for the first time since 1995.
Quite unlike the well-known Balanchine-choreographed work, Hot and Spicy takes place in South Beach and has a distinctive visual style. The sets feature scaled-down recreations of pastel-colored Art Deco hotels such as the Marlin, Park Central, and Cavalier. The costumes, too, are thoroughly researched to be appropriate for the Twenties, in which the dance is set. But the audience may relate most to the characters: scuba divers, ubiquitous pink flamingos treading delicately around the stage, and snooty South Beach waiters blithely ignoring their customers at a sidewalk cafe. "[Dealing with bad service] is an experience so many people have had," Isles shrugs.
While the Miami backdrop may seem odd, it is quite fitting for a troupe that counts blacks, Hispanics, Caucasians, and a Native American among its thirteen members. Entering its seventeenth season, Momentum is one of the oldest contemporary dance companies in the southeastern United States. When the members are not performing modern dance, including jazz and experimental avant-garde pieces, they teach kids at Miami-Dade elementary and high schools where they have residencies. They also demonstrate dances in various schools on a county and statewide level.
The educational work is highly gratifying, but performing amusing works like Hot and Spicy has its moments too. "This is not something with a big heavy message," Isles notes. "It's not deeply psychological. This is something for the holiday season. It's for people to enjoy themselves, to celebrate a little of what we have here in South Florida, both in terms of architecture and our natural environment, and some of the other quirkier aspects. This is to have a great time."