Like any great piece of literature or art, The Nutcracker, the ballet performed by almost every ballet company at Christmastime, has been adapted in many different fashions. Jennifer Weber and her network of dancers in New York may have found one of the most interesting spins — via DJ spins and hip-hop dance.
Weber is the artistic director of the Brooklyn-based, all-female hip-hop crew Decadancetheatre. Four years ago, she and some dancers tried a 15-minute version of The Nutcracker using parts of Tchaikovsky’s score. That expanded to the entire score in 2014, and by 2015, The Hip Hop Nutcracker was touring to other cities, produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and co-commissioned by United Palace of Cultural Arts.
This year, the tour schedule has expanded to 23 U.S. cities. Friday, it makes its penultimate tour stop, at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson, before finishing with four days in Charlotte, N.C., Dec. 27-30.
The show has become a hit with a range of arts goers.
“The audience for the show is so diverse,” Weber says. “We get a lot of family, hip-hop people, ballet people and everyone who just loves to go to The Nutcracker because it’s a holiday tradition.”
In this version — which is staged to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s famous music with occasional interludes from an onstage DJ and a violinist — the setting is contemporary New York. Everyone arrives at a block party, and when Drosselmeyer enters with his toys, his spell sends Maria-Clara and the Nutcracker Prince back to a Brooklyn nightclub in the 1980s where her parents first meet.
The dancing combines several styles of street and hip-hop dance, with hints of classical ballet.
“When we do the Russian [variation], we rock those toe-touches,” Weber says.
It’s important to know that just as there are many forms of ballet and modern dance, hip-hop dance is much more dimensional than many people give it credit for.
“In the show, you’ll see breaking, popping and locking, house, whacking, voguing and other styles,” Weber says. “Each of those styles has its own history and authenticity, and we want to stay true to the culture of hip-hop.”
Finding ways to translate the parts of the story and the variations in the Kingdom of Sweets developed organically for Weber and her collaborators. The mice, for instance, wear baseball caps with ears, and tails made from bandanas; they’re a gang of rodents.
Hip-hop dance doesn’t usually involve dancers coupling or connecting — it’s either solo or as a team, so finding ways to translate, say, the pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, were a challenge Weber enjoyed.
“Hip-hop is a culture that’s based on samples,” she says, “so here we ‘sample’ wardrobe, ideas, beats. For me, hip-hop is my language, it’s how I communicate. Taking a classic text [or work] like Shakespeare or The Nutcracker, it’s like how you might translate something into French.
“There’s a reason they’re classics, there’s a reason people want to explore them and see them.”
Considering the wild success of the award-winning hip-hop musical Hamilton, Weber feels hip-hop as an art form is starting to take off with mainstream audiences.
“Part of our mission is to explore the art form of hip-hop beyond the commercial world of videos and pop concerts into concert dance, like ballet,” she says. “I hope the audience feels inspired; it’s a positive message, it’s a show about love and coming together for the holidays.
“I hope they realize that anything is possible.”