‘Twas the night before Christmas Eve,
and all through the house
Patrons cheered on the Nutcracker,
as he won a hip-hop battle against a mouse.
Richardson — Sugar plums and pointe shoes need not apply here, and gone are the 19th century costumes, bouncy ringlets, and stiff upper-class manners. Fouette turns, pirouettes, and piques were also thankfully out of sight, as the Charles W. Eisemann Center with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center presented The Hip Hop Nutcracker, choreographed and directed by Jennifer Weber, in Richardson the night before Christmas Eve.
DJ Boo spun pre-show tracks to set the mood on a show that opened with David Marks on violin playing the overture to Tchaikovsky’s score. As he leaves, a canned version continues the classical music but the dancing on stage is anything but.
A street party brings out all manner of hip-hop dance styles and joyous fun, but Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clark) remains frustrated by her parents’ arguing. Drosselmeyer (female this time, danced by SHEstreet) brings toys to life to entertain the partygoers. Along the way, Maria-Clara meets a street vendor “The Nutcracker” (Josue Figueroa), who later saves her from the Mouse Crew and its leader (Randi “Rascal” Fleckenstine, assistant choreographer). Drosselmeyer takes them back in time to when Maria-Clara’s parents met, where they discover a variety of dancing individuals at a nightclub. Once they get back to the present day, they help rekindle her parents’ love.
Projections carried the audience to different areas of town, and sets were pretty minimal, conveying a street corner or a bar.
One of the best parts of watching an adaptation is looking for the similarities and finding surprises in the variations. One of the most remarkable elements (both good and bad) is the prevalence of traditional Nut music. While it allowed for a greater contrast between the music and movement, the DJ was utilized way less than expected. Rare were the moments where he added beats or mixed up the music in any way. It’s the only downside to an otherwise extraordinary show, but boy, is it a major one.
As for the upsides, there are too many to count, so let’s just hit the highlights.
Hip-hop culture was built on a philosophy of individual expression, so it’s natural that a show would focus on the unique talents of the performers. Luckily, the Nutcracker already has that structure built in, especially with the divertissements of Act II (more on that later). Ensemble work can be so visually powerful, and this show utilized both pretty well, although it focused more heavily on characters. Overall acting ability was phenomenal and the genre’s performance quality lent much more punch to the story than ballet’s composed, reserved style.
While each performer brought a unique talent to the show, Drosselmeyer dominated the stage. Mysterious and captivating, yet playful at every moment, SHEstreet delivered an astonishingly diverse vocabulary of movement consistently marked by an ease and fluidity none on stage could match.
Clark’s take on the main character involved larger arm motions, and her spirited quality easily put a smile on everyone’s face. Yorelis Apolinario, dancing the role of her mother, seemed the most balletic with her smooth style and extended leg maneuvers. JD Rainer as the father went straight up old school with a delightful power and explosiveness and even boasts some impressive comedic skills.
Act II brought out some 1980s awesomeness with signature club moves of the era, but it was the show’s interpretation of the divertissements that stood out. Maria Malmstrom wowed everyone with her vogueing to the Chinese music, and a fiery breakdancing duo perfectly matched the exuberance of the Russian music. The quirky Evan Moody danced to the Mirliton music, even miming a flute for comedic effect, but the funniest moments came during “Waltz of the Flowers” when all the guys tried to entice Apolinario.
Modernizing iconic works of the past is not a new thing in the performing arts, but it’s still not as prevalent and mainstream in dance as one would hope. With hip-hop and other more current dance forms permeating all mediums of cultural expression, we’ll likely see more of these types of productions, including fusion forms and variations on artistic traditions. Let’s keep this trend going.