‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker.’ (Courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust)
As the holiday season comes upon us, many ballet companies around the country are getting ready to present Tchaikovsky’s traditional Christmas classic, but The Hip Hop Nutcracker is mixing things up and changing the story to keep up with the times.
When I walked into the historic State Theatre last night, it was clear that this was not going to be the Nutcracker I had grown up watching. The room was filled with fog and a DJ stood on the stage spinning tunes as the audience — surprisingly, comprising mostly young children and their families — began to walk in, find their seats. and struggle to take selfies throughout the fog.
Once things got started, hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow confidently walked out onto the stage dressed in an all-white suit complete with a bedazzled bowtie, chain, and hat with “Blow” studded on the front. As the special guest MC, he set an upbeat tone for the night by getting the audience engaged and up out of their seats in a pep rally of sorts. After opening with a few chants he asked, “Where my old school friends at?” as he went into “Christmas Rappin’.”
He then transitioned into introducing the actual dance production itself by jokingly saying,”I mean, if Mr. Tchaikovsky was here today, he would probably do a Nutcracker like this — in the ‘hood.” (When Blow came to town in 2015 with The Hip Hop Nutcracker, he spoke with The Current’s Sean McPherson. Listen to the interview here.)
A duet between DJ Boo and classical violinist Emily Simone began the dance portion of the show. Much of the story would be told with Tchaikovsky’s original music, making the moments where Boo and Simone got their spotlight even more powerful.
The story of The Hip Hop Nutcracker starts with an annual holiday street party in New York City, where we meet the the main character, Maria-Clara. She’s upset by her parents, who can never seem to get along. At the party she meets a mysterious-looking Drosselmeyer, who brings magical toys with her to the party.
Drosselmeyer introduces Maria-Clara to a nut-selling street vendor who, being different from the other boys at the party, catches her eye. On her way home she and the street vendor run into a group of menacing mice. The vendor finds a pair of magical red sneakers hanging off a lamp post and, after putting them on, transforms into the Nutcracker and defeats the mice.
After their victory, Drosselmeyer returns, taking Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker back in time through the subway to the Land of Sweets night club. It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984 and, in the midst of watching the partygoers show off their ’80s dance moves, Maria-Clara gets to see her parents meet for the first time and fall in love with each other.
Overcome with what she saw, Maria-Clara returns with the Nutcracker back to the present day, where they help her parents work through their problems and find the love they shared when they first met. Afterwards, the community joins them in celebration and the show ends with Kurtis Blow rejoining the cast — this time with even more rhinestones — for a jam session to his iconic song “The Breaks” as dancers take turns freestyling to the music.
Although The Hip Hop Nutcracker is far from a ballet, it’s evident that the dancers were influenced by that art form, as they jumped, twirled, and melded hip-hop moves with traditional steps. They demonstrate an impressive athleticism as they move their bodies in ways I didn’t even know were possible, yet each move seems to be done with complete ease, and everything fits perfectly to the music.
Walking away, I also really appreciated the diversity of the cast. It’s certainly something that you don’t see too often in a Nutcracker and must have been a welcome sight for the many families in attendance.
You can catch one more performance of The Hip Hop Nutcracker tonight.
Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.