Grand Prairie — The Hip Hop Nutcracker returned to North Texas this holiday season for another slam-dunk performance that reimagined the traditional Nutcracker from start to finish. The Hip Hop Nutcracker didn’t just ask us to rethink the movement associated with Tchaikovsky’s music, but it asked crucial questions about family, friendships, race and gender. Choreographed by the sensational Jennifer Weber — whose most recent work just premiered in London’s West End — The Hip Hop Nutcracker foregoes snow queens and sugar plum fairies for a more familial tale that reminds us of the power of dance to inspire love, forgiveness and generosity.
After a rousing introduction and some old school beats courtesy of MC Kurtis Blow (a pioneer of hip-hop) and DJ Boo, we were transported to a holiday dance party with Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clark) and her friends on a festive New York street. The mood is dampened, for Maria-Clara, when she witnesses her parents arguing in an apparent dispute about the value of dance. An encounter with a street vendor selling nuts (Morris “Bboy Morris” Isby, III) — he’s literally cracking nuts for a living — and Maria-Clara turns into a romance, one that’s choreographed to appear charmingly adolescent.
One of the best performances of the evening was Drosselmeyer. Rather than a white-haired man, Drosselmeyer is played by Lisa “LBOOGIE” Bauford, a black woman with braids, who appears to engineer not only the romance between Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker but also a later reconciliation between Maria-Clara’s parents. After the Nutcracker successfully defends Maria-Clara from the Mouse King (with Drosselmeyer intervening to heal an injury he sustains), Drosselmeyer transports the pair to the mid-1980s, where they witness a tableau of fabulous hip-hop and the moment when Maria-Clara’s parents met. When the setting returns to the present, Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker help restore the parents’ fraying relationship. The entire show is set to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s score, with welcome interruptions that mash hip-hop beats by DJ Boo with hip-hop-inspired arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s tunes by violinist Jarvis L. Benson.
The movement showcased in The Hip Hop Nutcracker is stunning. The time travel part of the plot, which took place during the same portion of music where the ballet version sees Clara off to the Land of Sweets, gave the performers a chance to show the breadth of hip-hop, from breakdance to floor work to a hilarious parody of hyper-masculinity in dance. A standout for its unusual features, however, was choreography performed by Nubian Nene as Maria-Clara’s mother. Nene’s dance was characterized by rapid, angular movements of the forearms, as she beat her arms around her face, back, and shoulders, as if to signal entrapment and release, themes that echo in the plot.
Weber also chose to portray love through movement in a refreshing way. Duets between the Nutcracker and Maria-Clara had the pair dancing in tandem, often performing the same movement or precise mirror images of each other. Rather than the balletic form of romantic partnering, where men support pirouettes and promenades that culminate in a kiss, Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker performed in unison. The choreographic decision both portrayed what is perhaps a more equitable and confident version of love than traditional Nutcrackers depict. It also highlighted an important quality of today’s hip hop: men and women typically perform similar moves. Indeed, throughout the performance, nothing distinguished “masculine” moves from “feminine” moves. Other dance forms could learn from this example.
Randi “Rascal” Freitas, who played the Mouse King (Queen?) and a friend of Maria-Clara’s also stood out. Her dancing was bold, and she exuded physical power on stage, even as a scrappy Mouse King.
My only quibble was that the DJ’s table was set at an awkward angle, right at the front of the stage, in a way that obscured the right half of the stage for a wing of viewers. While the DJ provided a happily provocative intervention in the musical score, I thought that the table would have been better located further to the side or in a less prominent place so that attention could remain largely on the dancers.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker also engaged a series of social issues. It was important to see a Nutcracker performed by a cast that was mostly people of color, but the engagement with race went further. While stereotypes about black kids on the street abound, The Hip Hop Nutcracker portrays comradery, innocence, loyalty, and beauty. Likewise, hip-hop, both in its dance and musical forms, is sometimes associated with hypermasculinity, but this production uses hypermasculinity as comedic relief. In the scene set in the 1980s, a series of potential suitors approaches Maria-Clara’s mother, aiming to win her affection with their exaggerated manliness. They all fail, after eliciting laughter from the audience, and the mother falls in the love with the slightly nerdy man who eventually becomes Maria-Clara’s father. It’s a great commentary on the futility of exaggerated manliness as well as stereotype that such forms of masculinity are required in hip hop.
The evening was capped off with more old school beats by the DJ and MC, as the cast showed off their skills during the curtain call. The fresh ending reminded me that one of the best ways to ask provocative questions is to completely disassemble our current traditions and rebuild them to discover new angles and create new vantage points.