Hell’s bells to those who tell hip-hop choreographer Jennifer Weber that the sacred holiday tradition of The Nutcracker has been irreverently tinkered with in The Hip Hop Nutcracker.
“Isn't that what hip hop is all about?” says the Brooklyn-based founder and artistic director of Decadancetheatre, an all-female, hip-hop dance theater company, and director and choreographer of The Hip Hop Nutcracker.
“That’s what we do. We sample, we take from cultures and ideas and all the things we see and we put our own spin on it. So, of course, we’re going to re-imagine the most famous dance piece ever.”
The adaptation had its birth last year when the United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA) in Manhattan was searching for a holiday show. Mike Fitelson, the executive director of UPCA, had seen Weber’s dance troupe, who has a knack for putting hip-hop moves to classical music, and asked her if she’d like to collaborate on a modern-day Nutcracker.
“She was game,” says Fitelson. “Early on, we decided that Tchaikovsky’s music is so powerful and iconic on its own that we wanted to retain most of it. What we embellished was the storyline, setting, and — most importantly, the dancing.”
The classic story is transplanted to a holiday street party in modern-day New York City. The Nutcracker sells nuts from a street cart, Drosselmeyer is a magician with a cape, and the Land of the Sweets is a nightclub, circa 1984.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker was performed last holiday season for only four shows — two at UPCA and two at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. It was such a hit, the production is now on a 14-stop tour that includes Miami for two shows at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Saturday and Sunday, and three stops that wrap up the tour in January in Russia, Tchaikovsky’s homeland, and a country that has had an indelible impact on ballet.
Weber says the music of Tchaikovsky somehow just fits with hip hop and has provided her with “more than enough” material for her choreography. “There are so many nuances within the score.” However, she says it isn’t without its challenges. “In hip hop, you’re used to a steady beat — ‘boom, kat; boom, boom, boom, kat; boom, kat; boom, boom, boom, kat,’ “ as she taps out the rhythm with her voice. “Classical music has a different meter” as she mentions the juxtaposition to hip hop with classical’s more diverse structure. “It really forces you as a dancer to be more articulate with your body.”
While much of The Hip Hop Nutcracker is danced to Tchaikovsky’s ebullient score, there are moments where true hip-hop fans will get their juice. On stage, DJ Boo remixes Tchaikovsky into hip-hop beats while electric violinist Mathew Silvera adds to the live mix. The cherry on top is guest emcee Kurtis Blow, one of the founders and creators of recorded rap.
“We really wanted to bring in someone to represent old school hip hop since the (dance form) is so much about its roots and culture. And the show is really connecting modern hip hop with classical music, so adding Kurtis was the perfect fit.”
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Invited to perform in one of the dance pieces alongside the cast during Sunday's afternoon performance are high school students from Miami-Dade County’s Arthur & Poly Mays Conservatory of the Arts, who worked with the troupe and Weber as part of an outreach program.
“Miami has a fantastic dance energy and we saw that with these students. There’s a positive vibe to Miami hip hop — maybe it’s because of the sunshine.”
-Michelle F. Solomon
The Hip Hop Nutcracker
8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami. Tickets $45; www.arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722.