Hip Hop Nutcracker – Frickin Awesome

For years, Becky has been dragging me to Nutcracker productions. It’s a Christmas tradition for her ever since she went to a production in Boston. In Fargo, we saw a rather bedraggled Russian Ballet production that started late due to a broken down bus on the way to town. We saw a $40 a ticket version at the O’Shaughnessy Theater at St. Catherine University that seemed mostly like a high school recital with a professional thrown in at the end to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. On our honeymoon, we watched the Rockettes’ pared down version of The Nutcracker, which was the best we’ve seen, yet it was only 20 minutes of a larger show.

Becky here, in italics! The key problem is that I saw the Nutcracker twice in Boston, and since I left, I have been desperate for ballet. And, for the record, I gave up on the Nutcracker altogether last year. I figured we’d just have to wait until we returned to New York or Boston to see a ballet production. But I was in need of the Nutcracker this year.

So when Becky said she had a new Nutcracker opportunity, I was skeptical. When I opened the link and saw it would be a hip hop version, complete with MC Kurtis Blow, I lost my shit.

I believe when I asked him if we could go, he actually said, “I can’t breathe.”

Kurtis Blow, a bona fide pioneer Godfather of hip hop. He was before my time of full on hip hop immersion in the mid-90s, but everyone paid him respect in songs and interviews. Nas covered him with “If I Ruled the World,” a song I listened to so often on my cassette walkman while stocking shelves at the local gas station at my first job.

To be able to see a legend in concert would be a highlight of the year. And taking a ballet and adding b-boying (hip hop dance) totally makes sense. So much of hip hop culture is re-appropriating and sampling other music to make a new thing. Hip hop dance is a combination of many styles of dance from various cultures. I’m calling it Hip hop dance here, though there is some argument over what it’s called. Breakdancing has become a pejorative term among b-boying, so in order to avoid accidental foot-in-mouthery, I’m sticking to hip hop dance.

The night before the event, Minneapolis hit the national news when white supremacists opened fire on a Black Lives Matter gathering. What the shit: that’s the correct reaction. What. The. Ever. Living. Shit.

Luckily no one died, but shit, white supremacists in Minneapolis? Still reeling from this news, we went to the Ordway to see a magical answer in the form of hip hop dancers of all cultures from all over the world working together. This isn’t to say that the tragedy was smoothed over or fixed in any way, but the juxtaposition in our eyes couldn’t be ignored.

The audience was even more varied, from 6 years old to 80. We had seats just rows back from the stage, far left. Closer than we’ve been to anything in the Ordway.

fromstage

The mix of generations and races and religions was beautiful to watch. I have never been to the Ordway where I was not one of the youngest there. But this performance was so different and a symbolic coming together at this time in which humanity gathers to remember that we are all the same, we are all human.

Kurtis Blow came out, resplendently dressed in a white jumpsuit and cap. He warmed up the crowd with a performance of songs from the early days of hip hop.

After 15 minutes, he set the scene, New Years Eve, and left the stage. An electric violin solo later, the Nutcracker began. The music was perhaps truncated at times? I can’t say for sure except from vague memories of the various solos, but maybe not. In any case, the music was the original orchestration with very occasional additions from the electric violin. Mostly, this was pure Nutcracker with hip hop dancing instead of ballet.

I’ve never seen b-boying in person, but have always always been fascinated and loved this aspect of hip hop culture (Hip hop’s various elements being rap MC-ing, b-boying, beat boxing, graffiti and turntables). I can easily get lost for hours in a Youtube hole watching dancing videos. The pure athleticism and artistry, but with an energy that I don’t get out of ballet.

I completely disagree. The problem is that Joel hasn’t seen the best of the best ballet. It has amazingly strong athleticism and energy.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that they aren’t athletic. It just seems to me that there’s room for improvisation in hip hop, for the unexpected. Gasps were common at the Ordway during the performance. A particular highlight for me was a dance set with a random scattering of red solo cups on the ground, each dancer managing to perform amazing moves without disturbing the cups. (video and production stills from the Hip Hop Nutcracker website)

Every dancer had his or her own strengths – pop and locking, floor dancing, spins and flips and more. It was pure art on display.

Unlike the other productions, where the group numbers tend to be dull for me and the solos amazing, the Hip Hop Nutcracker’s most powerful sections were group or duo dances.

Maria Clara, the protagonist, was no victim in this production either. Largely set in 1984 New York, she holds her own, she wants the boy, she doesn’t “need” him. We loved this take. The mother and father take on more prominence here since they also double as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier, acting out a domestic instability that is reconciled through dance.

For our first hip hop dance experience, I can’t imagine a better time.

I was skeptical about the performance due to our misadventures in dance here is the Cities. For Joel, this Nutcracker was his first real immersion into the music, but he didn’t have the traditional performance and use of music while at this performance. There was nothing wrong with this because it was watching someone see the Nutcracker for the first time: the magic, the wonder, the beauty, the music and the talent. This performance met Joel where he was at and brought him into the traditional music without the distraction of ballet. Like the first time I saw the Nutcracker, his eyes widened and he was a 37-year-old child. 

To me, aware of the traditional performances with its decadent costumes and scenery, the black and white movie reel they had playing in the background showing Brooklyn in present day and in 1984 was quite striking. The major props consisted of a shopping cart, a park bench and a lamp post.

Traditional decadence
Traditional decadence

Unlike the traditional production, this one used black and white street clothes as costumes for the large party scene in the beginning. But, like the traditional performance, post intermission is is colorful and full of life showing off the hyper neon colors of the 1980’s. Instead of making the costumes look edible, they placed the post intermission scene in a soda shop, highlighting the names of the dances for this section: Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Ginger and Candy Canes.

The post intermission traditional performance includes dances from around the world. These dances often include very specific movements, for example, in Act II—No 15: “Café”-Danse arabe, this features Middle Eastern music and extreme flexibility on the part of the female dancer, where she grabs her ankle and puts her leg above her head. In this production, the female dancer used the traditional move and then incorporated it into the hip-hop improvisation for the remainder of that section. The fascinating part was for me to watch the signature moves made new and re-appropriated.

Here’s my last analysis section. I swear. Through the traditional music, the Hip Hop Nutcracker was able to portray many of the themes and concerns in the African American culture and society. Domestic violence, poverty, religion and humor were all incorporated through dance. But, that which I loved the most was the strength of the women in this portrayal. Clara, in the traditional version, is a little girl wandering around in a nightgown with bare legs. Her dances are merely her moving a bit and being tossed around by an adult sized male. This Maria Clara held her own. Finally, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier is kept for the strongest and most powerful dancer in the troop. However, this production placed the mother figure as the Sugar Plum Fairy, helping you connect her strength as a woman and as a dancer and highlighting the matriarchal theme in African American Culture.

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For the finale, Kurtis Blow emerged once again to show his moves and perform “The Breaks.” He even did an amazing freeze move, not for a 56-year-old, but for any age!

It was a truly magical night capped with a lovely walk through Rice Park, currently lit up for the holidays.

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