Double “Nut” fun
NJPAC offers twice the Tchaikovsky in one weekend, with two takes on his holiday classic.
Would it even be December if you didn’t get to hear the ageless music of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker? Could Christmas come without the high-stepping prance of the “Nutcracker March,” the ethereal tinkling of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo?
(Trivia tidbit to trot out at your next holiday party: The instrument that makes Sugar Plum’s distinctive, dainty plinking? It’s called a celesta. Because it sounds celestial. You’re welcome.)
Tchaikovsky’s most beloved score, The Nutcracker is the holiday season’s musical shorthand; music you probably recognize and respond to even if you’ve never actually seen the ballet on stage.
“That music – it’s amazing, it’s iconic, it just makes people feel good,” says choreographer Jennifer Weber, founder of the hip-hop dance troupe Decadancetheater.
Winter certainly wouldn’t be the same without it, which is why NJPAC has packed a mid-December weekend with not one but two radically different takes on the world’s best-known ballet. Each features Tchaikovsky’s festive, familiar score — but the similarities end right there.
On December 16, the State Ballet Theatre of Russia will present a full traditional staging of The Nutcracker – complete with the glittering tree, dancing candies and martial Nutcracker prince – with a cast of more than 60 dancers trained in the Russian tradition. This is as close as you’ll get to the Nutcracker Tchaikovsky himself would have seen.
The night before, however, NJPAC will welcome back its home-grown answer to the classic holiday confection: The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a contemporary take on the tale, with legendary rapper Kurtis Blow on hand as the evening’s opening act and emcee. Weber directed and choreographed the piece, which sets hip hop dance and a contemporary story to the familiar Nutcracker tunes, amped up by a DJ and an electric violinist.
“It’s a unique opportunity to juxtapose Tchaikovsky’s original masterpiece as it appeared at Moscow’s Mariinsky Theater, against our newly-commissioned Hip Hop Nutcracker, featuring the same score, only scratched by a DJ,” says David Rodriguez, NJPAC’s Executive Vice President and Executive Producer.
“More than showing the differences between the works, the programming stresses the similarities of artistic excellence, and the story of a family in the midst of a holiday homecoming,” he says.
The Hip Hop Nutcracker was first conceived when Weber – who was already experimenting with marrying hip hop dance to classical tunes, starting with a take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – was introduced to Mike Fitelson of New York’s United Palace of Cultural Arts, who was looking for a big project.
“He said to me, ‘I don’t know about Vivaldi, what about The Nutcracker?’ And I was like – yes!” says Weber. “Because as an artist, you always want to do something big, bigger than you could dream. And The Nutcracker exists in pop culture in a way that no other ballet does.”
In Weber’s retelling, the heroine becomes a contemporary girl of New York City, whose parents are fighting their way through the holidays. Drosselmeyer’s magic sends her back to the scene where her parents first met: a nightclub called the Land of Sweets, on New Year’s Eve in 1984. Different genres of hip hop dance –popping and locking, waving and vogueing – limn the different characters.
NJPAC became a co-producer of the show in its first year, adding legendary rapper Kurtis Blow – the first rapper to sign with a major label, and the author of a much earlier hip hop holiday production, his 1979 hit “Christmas Rappin’” — to the production. The combo clicked; Hip Hop Nutcracker with Blow on board is now on its fourth and largest holiday-season tour.
“David Rodriguez knew Kurtis, he put us together and it was just magic,” Weber recalls. “(Blow’s) vision of hip hop and my vision of hip hop are so similar. He wrote a special track that transitions from a set of his classics into the show, and then he comes back to sing ‘The Breaks,’ one of the most famous hip hop anthems of all time – that’s our finale. It really shows you how much hip hop and classical go together, because we go from a proper hip hop set to Tchaikovsky like it was nothing.”
“It’s all about the rhythm,” says Blow, who is gearing up for Hip Hop Nutcracker’s 30-city tour after recovering from heart surgery earlier this year. (“I’m ready to go full throttle and test out this, like, Tony Stark’s heart thing they gave me!” he laughs.)
“What’s so amazing is, hip hop is so malleable, that you can connect it with a traditional ballet. And this year, the choreography has stepped up to a level where it’s really magnificent,” he adds.
And while the story of the ballet has changed a little, Blow notes that both takes on The Nutcracker are still “always about that spirit of love, that spirit of joy and giving that’s in the air” during the holidays. (Blow, by the way, is not only still touring with this production, he’s also a minister. Offstage, he continues to work at establishing a bricks-and-mortar hip hop museum in the Bronx, and has launched his own cell phone network, Hip Hop Global Mobile.)
The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s combination of the new and the familiar has proven to be a potent draw for audiences looking for a holiday show with a slightly different beat.
“It is literally the most diverse audience you will ever see,” says Weber. “You see families with kids, people who are really into hip hop, little girls who look like they take ballet all the time, old people, hipsters, every race, every age. I love seeing that kind of range of people in the audience together.”
Nov. 7, 2017