I love a good remix. So, I jumped at the chance to see The Hip Hop Nutcracker at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts on Tuesday, November 22, 2016.
As I walked through the lobby doors that evening, hip-hop songs from the 1980s through modern day reverberated throughout the space. Curious to see where the music was coming from, I followed the sound up to the second-floor lobby, where I discovered a pre-show dance party in full swing. After people-watching a bit–I was glad to see audience members of all ages and even two of my own ballet students!–I made my way back downstairs to find my seat and settle in.
Hip hop legend Kurtis Blow, the evening’s MC, opened the production with a 15-minute set of old school hip-hop songs (some of his own along with covers of others’) that brought the audience to its feet. After a spirited countdown from 10 to 1, the story began: a tale of Maria-Clara, a young lady in modern-day New York City on a cold New Year’s Eve.
All of the dancers in The Hip Hop Nutcracker are exceptionally talented, moving deftly between genres like breaking, locking, capoeira, vogue, and contemporary that showcased the dancers’ breadth of skill, but suffered from overly repetitive spatial arrangements and movement phrases. Though I knew the choreography was demanding, I became less impressed with certain movements, like a dancer spinning on his head, because I saw them happen more than once over the course of the evening.
And I was surprised to find myself wishing, oddly enough, for less dancing in exchange for clearer, coherent articulation of The Hip Hop Nutcracker’s story and characters and greater emphasis on the live musical artists, such as electric violinist David Marks and Performance DJ Boo, that accompanied the choreography with what struck me as a very polite rearrangement of Tchaikovsky’s score. MC Kurtis Blow reappeared after the dance performance with two more musical sets of his own and I enjoyed the opportunity to attend a concert by a legendary figure in music history, but bookending the dance production with musical sets stretched the run time of this show pretty far. I wonder if this could be remedied by integrating the MC character directly into the body of The Hip Hop Nutcracker. I appreciated the technical excellence required to create the video projections that were incorporated into this production but, because of issues of scale, proportion, and color in relation to the performers, had reservations about the creative teams’ choice to use those projections as a replacement for a set.
Standout moments in Act I included a brilliant duet featuring Drosselmeyer (SHESTREET) as puppetmaster of a marionette toy (Liliana Frias) that captivates Maria-Clara and her friends during a boisterous night of New Year’s Eve celebration; Yorelis Apolinario and JD Rainey in a duet that relocated the music traditionally used for the Arabian divertissement to Act I and repurposed it to tell the story of why Maria-Clara refrains from going home to her fighting parents after her New Year’s Eve celebration with friends; and a solo/SOLO cup section that playfully reinterpreted the party scene in a manner as precise as it was punny.
Like Act I, Act II diverged from the traditional tale, yet it didn’t seem to have received the same creative attention. Save for a humorous, virtuosic departure from Marzipan in Evan Moody’s portrayal of the Flute, the sweets came off like throw-away numbers in a way I didn’t expect after the creativity I saw in Act I. Call me a traditionalist, but the Sugar Plum Fairy was absent, and I missed her.
My favorite part of The Hip Hop Nutcracker is that it made me more curious. Ever since seeing the production, I’ve wondered: What must stay intact so that a reimagined artwork stays linked to its history? And what must dissolve so that that artwork can develop an independent identity?
The Hip Hop Nutcracker continues its tour through December 30, 2016. Click here for information on dates, times, and tickets at a theater near you.