BEVERLY HILLS — As the holiday season unfolds across America, folks in two dozen cities will have the opportunity to experience The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a loosely reconstructed version of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet that is simply astounding. The familiar melodies are still there, mostly piped in with full orchestra, but amplified by a solo violinist (David Marks) who rips off some country riffs on the old Russian’s tunes — I’m calling him the Fiddler on the Hoof — and a Performance DJ (DJ Boo) to keep the groove on. The special guest MC on this tour, with his own introductory routine, is one of the original hip hop rappers, Kurtis Blow, celebrating his 43rd anniversary in the field.
Some months ago, in a review of the documentary film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, I singled out a young Black man “who danced a lyrical hip-hop-inflected ballet to Ma’s playing of Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Swan.’ Now there is a genre that simply cries out to be incorporated more widely in larger-scale work: Why not a hip-hop version of Prokofiev’s ballet score to Romeo and Juliet or to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake?”
Clearly I was not alone in my fantasy. Nor was I aware of this Nutcracker version which Mike Fitelson had already adapted back in 2014.
In this iteration, the action takes place on New Year’s Eve in “Uptown, USA,” though the imagery is clearly New York City. During the annual uptown holiday street party, Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clark) is upset by her parents’ (Yorelis Apolinario and JD Rainey) constant bickering. The mysterious Drosselmeyer (SHEstreet) appears, bringing magical toys to the party. He introduces Maria-Clara to the Nutcracker (Josue “Beast” Figueroa), a street vendor selling roasted nuts, who catches her eye because he is different from the other boys on the block. After the party breaks up, Maria-Clara heads home, but on her way, she runs into the menacing Mouse Crew, who look like escapees from a sinister Gothic Mickey Mouse Club. The Nutcracker, aided by a magic pair of red sneakers (which to a balletomane inevitably recall the famous film The Red Shoes), defeats the Mouse King (Randi “Rascal” Fleckenstine) and the couple enjoy the romance of winter’s first snowfall.
In Act 2, Drosselmeyer meets Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker and spirits them back in time to the Land of Sweets nightclub on New Year’s Eve, 1984. Invisible to the other patrons, the couple watch the party-goers show off the dance styles of the day. Suddenly Maria-Clara realizes she is witnessing the night her parents met, and is overcome by how they were once deeply in love. Back in the present, and with a little more magic, Maria Clara and the Nutcracker help Mom and Dad reconcile and recapture their old feeling. The story is a little different from the original, but, hey, it never was about the story anyway.
The show busts wide open with energetic moves in a contemporary urban vein. We get everything the standard version features, but with a wider vocabulary of movement: solo turns, pas de deux, mime, tai chi, candomblé, acrobatics, break dance showstoppers, moonwalks, fight scenes, trick dancing (tripping amongst a set-up of plastic drinking cups on the floor without bumping into any of them), the Russian kazatsky, “Oriental” numbers, and all the way up to full ensemble choreography. As Kurtis Blow said, “If Mr. Tchaikovsky were presenting this play today, he’d do it just like this.” I believe it.
At a time when the character of our nation is being challenged by forces that would restore white male supremacy, it is a pleasure to see a cast of fourteen super-talented young dancers of every ethnic background creating a festive, exhilarating spectacle together for us all to enjoy. The audience, too, is thoroughly and happily integrated, with lots of kids. If you love dance and are open to exposing yourself to what wonders there are to behold in the hip hop idiom, run, run, run to your local theatre for this experience.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker was originally developed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The director and choreographer is Jennifer Weber. This performance ran two nights, Nov. 17 and 18, at the art deco Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills.