Sugar Hill: The Ellington / Strayhorn Nutcracker Ballet Picks Halcyon

Date Posted: 3/4/2024

Sugar Hill is an electric reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic Nutcracker, composed by jazz icons Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in 1960 and seen for the first time as a fully realized ballet at the Chicago Auditorium in December 2023.  To bring the piece to life, Lighting Designer Christopher Annas-Lee deployed 48 High End Systems Halcyon Titanium High Fidelity fixtures.

Annas-Lee explained his design was inspired by “a towering sense of whimsy.” He said, “It is a wild, fun show, full of spectacle.  But it is also an essential representation of Black culture and identity. I take very seriously the job of making a diverse cast look absolutely dope, and of supporting them as they tell a story of empowerment and acceptance that everyone really needs to hear.”

As for the historic 3,800-seat venue in which the piece premiered, the designer described it as “the largest interior space, outside of armories, I have ever worked in. Gilded arches (adorned with rows of incandescent lamps) make the 60’ stage look miniscule. To walk in there makes you feel inconsequential. The only way to do intimacy in a space that grand is with scale contrast.  Fill this massive volume above the house with razzle-dazzle photonic architecture, so that you can then pull it back to emphasize the humans onstage.” In terms of gear, Christopher says “we only used what we brought, no time for house fixtures. This production came together very quickly; we had four hours to focus and dry tech (and Sound Designer Josh Reid was a real gentleman about sharing that time with us), followed by 14 hours with cast onstage. To get ready as quickly as possible, I asked our Associate Zachary Heffner to speed-focus the bare minimum of Lustrs while my programmer Brad Gray got the movers ship shape, and I touched up a cue sheet I had written on the flight. Then we were off to the races!”

In addition to 48 Halcyon Titanium High-Fidelity fixtures, Annas-Lee employed eight Esprites, 15 Tetra 4s, “a mess o’ Lustrs, and apparently all the available CF72s on the east coast.” The Esprites were placed on either side of the band trusses for big diagonal back washes, while the precision work was left to the Halcyons.  He continued: “The Titanium fixtures were mostly in a grid overstage, with three rows of nine plus six above the band. There was also one as a shin per dance boom, which I can’t recommend enough. At the start of a process, my associate and I take bets on which fixtures will get us out of trouble the most, and it for sure turned out to be the DL/R floor Halcyons, right on either side of the CF foots; they proved invaluable for filling in faces while pulling dancers out from the background.”

When asked why he selected Halcyon Titaniums, Annas-Lee exclaimed “We had so many places to get to, we needed the flexibility!” Act One of Sugar Hill moves from a staid ballroom with soft candelabra washes to bustling Harlem streets, defined by boxes slicing in and out around the dancers, to an underground Jazz club (what Annas-Lee describes as ‘wild tight sexy beams’) to a pas de deux through streetlamps in the moonlight (“those tight beams … tamed by self respect!”).

“With the Titaniums, we could do it all. A 6° to 60° zoom is just ridiculous; so fun to play with. And three levels of frost helped make that transition seamless.”  He went on: “Act Two brings the full-on magic, and what better way to show that, and keep a constant barrage of new performers feeling fresh, than with big color gestures. This is why I wanted to hold the cyc back until Uncle Dross transports us, and with that swirling chaos lift up the FS Black and plunge the audience into a psychedelic cyclorama. A dramatic psychlorama… a psychloramadrama…”

Dross’ glistening white suit, courtesy of designer David Kaley, stood out nicely from that blast of rainbow. Then Annas-Lee followed Kaley’s lead into a hue family per solo, based on popping the costumes and supporting each performer’s skin tone. Magenta for Sugar Rum Cherry; Green and Cyan for the Floreadores; a “Simone Leigh-inspired stately gold” for Mother Sugar.

The LD said that for Act Two, “Again, the Halcyon and Lustr fixtures were key: there is no manufacturer I trust more with color than ETC. The deep red in Lustr 3s makes darker skin tones look electric onstage, and the CMY Titanium fixtures were consistently able to keep a good spectrum inside more saturate hues. You can’t hide that sort of thing when mixing cobalts with CTB or CTO … that deep-shadowed pale rose we all love will only come out of high CRI fixtures and dang, ETC never disappoints.”

About the rental shop, Annas-Lee said “Sugar Hill was my first experience with Main Light, and I was impressed. The shop is organized, the inventory is plentiful and new, and the service is great. It’s my sincere hope that Main Light keeps to this high standard as they continue to get the customers they clearly deserve.”

In closing, Annas-Lee noted that Zachary Heffner, Joel Balthuis, Brad Gray, and the whole electrics team were essential to the success of the tight process. “It’s hard to overstate how important it is to be surrounded by people you trust, especially on a show this big going up this fast.  Thanks to them, and to the designers, our director Josh Bergasse, and to the indomitable cast.  This one was a blast!”

More of Christopher Annas-Lee’s work can be found at or on Instagram @ldannaslee. Photos by: Michelle Reid